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Lawsuit over animal shelter is unlikely, despite urging from Independence panel

So many cats. Cats and the Great Plains SPCA animal shelter in Independence are one focus of a letter from a citizen advisory board asking the city to go to court against Jackson County. “The refusal to accept all cats (stray or owned) from Independence residents and the city staff is only one of the many ways the county has violated our agreement,” says a letter sent last month to the mayor and City Council. The board urged the council to sue the county over the cats and several other issues on how the shelter has been run. Jackson County contracts with Great Plains to run the shelter, which accepts animals from Independence and the unincorporated part of the county. Before the Great Plains shelter was opened, Independence ran its own animal shelter.
So many cats. Cats and the Great Plains SPCA animal shelter in Independence are one focus of a letter from a citizen advisory board asking the city to go to court against Jackson County. “The refusal to accept all cats (stray or owned) from Independence residents and the city staff is only one of the many ways the county has violated our agreement,” says a letter sent last month to the mayor and City Council. The board urged the council to sue the county over the cats and several other issues on how the shelter has been run. Jackson County contracts with Great Plains to run the shelter, which accepts animals from Independence and the unincorporated part of the county. Before the Great Plains shelter was opened, Independence ran its own animal shelter. Special to The Star

If the Great Plains SPCA’s Independence shelter has had one overriding theme since opening a year and a half ago, it’s cats.

An overabundance of cats was the reason the shelter got off to a shaky financial start in 2013.

Now cats are one focus of a letter by an advisory committee asking the city to go to court against Jackson County.

“The refusal to accept all cats (stray or owned) from Independence residents and the city staff is only one of the many ways the county has violated our agreement,” says a letter from the citizen Advisory Board of Health, sent last month to the mayor and City Council.

The advisory board urged the City Council to sue Jackson County over the cats and several other issues on how the shelter has been run. Jackson County contracts with Great Plains to run the shelter, which accepts animals from Independence and the unincorporated part of the county.

The city pays about $400,000 per year as its contribution. Before the Great Plains shelter was opened, Independence ran its own animal shelter.

A lawsuit seems unlikely for now. No council members have asked to have that discussion on the agenda, and Mayor Eileen Weir said she is committed to working with the county on the animal shelter.

“I am not inclined to file a lawsuit against Jackson County,” said Weir. “I don’t feel that is the way to maintain our good relationship with the county.”

The animal shelter has been the subject of some awkwardness between the city and county since before it opened.

Under the agreement, Jackson County paid to build the shelter and Independence pays to operate it. But as the shelter was set to open, Independence balked at the county’s proposal to have Great Plains run it. City officials worried that would significantly add to the cost.

Now that the shelter has been up and running for about 19 months, the health advisory board still has concerns. Besides restrictions on cats, a lack of financial reports from the county was another big concern. The letter also cited restrictions on stray dogs and hoofed animals, and said the shelter manages an outdoor colony of feral cats in violation of city ordinance.

Neither Howard Braby, the outgoing advisory board chairman whose signature was on the letter, nor Chris Sullivan, the current chairman, would comment further on the letter. Mayor Weir stressed her willingness to work with the county and was unhappy that the board was so public in its complaints.

“They’re within their rights to look into the issue and advise me but not within their rights to take it to the press,” she said.

The city-county agreement is new territory for Independence, but Weir said she’s confident the wrinkles can be ironed out.

“There have been some problems that have arisen, but we’ve always been able to work through them. Our goal is to work those things out,” she said.

For instance, about a year ago the shelter charged a spay and neutering fee to owners when they picked up their strays, regardless of whether the owner wanted the procedure done, said Andrew Warlen, Independence health director. But that practice was discontinued.

The shelter also ran into trouble with state inspectors last year during a spike in the cat population, when there were about 400 cats in a shelter that can hold 175. The city opened up an old fire station to take the excess. However the cat population is back down to acceptable levels and there are no more cats at the old station, said Independence’s assistant health director Mike Jackson.

The shelter and the city had to adopt some policies for that to happen, though. For instance, Independence animal control officers pick up stray cats only if they appear injured or sick, Jackson said.

Courtney Thomas, president and CEO of Great Plains, said the shelter also works with the public. If someone comes across a mother cat with a litter, for example, shelter staff will provide training for the finders to be temporary foster parents until the kittens are old enough to be adopted, she said.

Likewise feral cats — the kind that are usually too wild to be picked up and petted — should be sterilized and returned to where they came from, Thomas said.

That’s what the shelter does for cats that show up near an old incinerator on its property that has become a habitat, she said. But Thomas said the colony in the wooded area near the shelter is far enough from other residences that it should not pose a neighborhood problem.

Jackson County officials declined to discuss the advisory board’s complaints, but spokeswoman Lisa Carter says the county is up to date in filing its reports to Independence. In an emailed response to The Star’s query, Gary Panethiere, chief operating officer for Jackson County, said:

“The County believes that it would be inappropriate to respond to an internal city of Independence communication that was never forwarded to anyone in Jackson County. Any issues that may arise from time to time between the provider of the shelter services (Great Plains) and the user of those services (the City) would best be worked out between those parties. We are hopeful that both sides will sit down and resolve any challenges and areas of concern that they may have. We will continue to work with all the parties to help continue to effectively and humanely manage the animal population.”

Though there have been rough patches, Thomas said Great Plains has begun to make a difference. Since the shelter opened, she said, there’s been a 51 percent increase in adoptions, a 31 percent decrease in euthanasia and a 61 percent increase in lost pets that are recovered by their owners.

“Our goal is to work collaboratively and cooperatively to make a very positive difference,” Thomas said.

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