KC should get out of the animal control business, and here’s who should take over

The push for a new KC animal shelter

Teresa Johnson, CEO of KC Pet Project, gave a tour of the Kansas City Animal Shelter on Raytown Road in March 2017. Since then, KC has moved forward with building a new animal shelter in Swope Park.
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Teresa Johnson, CEO of KC Pet Project, gave a tour of the Kansas City Animal Shelter on Raytown Road in March 2017. Since then, KC has moved forward with building a new animal shelter in Swope Park.

Two years after a diplomatically damning audit of Kansas City’s animal control division, it’s clear that little has changed — and that much needs to, in order to alleviate widespread animal suffering here.

Critics say the city’s operation has historically been far too ineffective at rescuing animals, while sometimes being too quick to reunite them with abusive owners. And there’s still a bizarre tension in the division’s relationship with nonprofit animal lovers at KC Pet Project whose no-kill management of the city’s animal shelter since 2012 has earned national recognition.

At the city’s own request, KC Pet Project earlier this year put in a bid to also take over animal control responsibilities and create a seamless operation with the shelter. If the city truly cares about animal welfare, it will swallow its pride, take the nonprofit up on its offer and hand animal control functions over without further delay.

The August 2017 audit tactfully concluded city Animal Health and Public Safety’s “current focus on enforcement strategies is not necessarily achieving desired outcomes, and AHPS and (KC Pet Project) do not share the same vision.” The audit faulted the city for a myopic, yet inconsistent focus on writing citations — and even a quota of 25 a month per officer — “versus educating owners and resolving violations in the field.”

In a sampling of 25 cases of abuse or neglect requiring follow-up checks by officers, the auditor found that half of the revisits had not been performed. The audit also pointed to a “strained” and “tense” relationship with the shelter.

Other than the transfer of managers in the animal control division and better communication at the top, “Nothing has really changed,” one close observer told The Star. Indeed, when animal control officers rounded up 27 animals in one location alone on Sunday, the observer said, the city didn’t even warn the shelter they were coming. “That’s just indicative of the whole situation. There’s always been this breakdown in communication.”

The audit spells out a particularly egregious case of the city’s failure to follow through, across several months, on reports and sounds and smells of what eventually turned out to be four “unsocialized” dogs largely alone in a house in “extremely unsanitary conditions.”

Carol Coe has documented many more failures over the years. The animal welfare activist has a file full of case reports, emails, photos and more that she has stockpiled in an effort to inspire the city to improve animal control or step aside. She says it’s time to let KC Pet Project take over — especially with its record at the shelter, including a 95.4% live-release rate and an average stay of only 18 days for dogs and 25 for cats.

“Animal control is still operating the way that it has been. We need that to change,” Coe told The Star. “Nobody sees it changing as long as it’s under the auspices of the city. It’s just been a long slog trying to get them to believe it can be different.

“I think the mentality would be completely different if KC Pet Project were running it,” Coe adds, describing that mentality as one of “sheer will.”

It’s certainly a matter of the approach. Whereas the city department was faulted for its overemphasis (and underperformance) on enforcement, Coe and other advocates, as well as the city auditor, say the mindset in animal control needs to be one of helping and educating the public, rather than beating people over the head. Building relationships and offering resources for responsible pet ownership should be a priority — a kind of community policing for animals, Coe says.

The city’s animal control operation has been under new management the past few months, and temporary head Gerald Countz — a veteran of both animal control and the animal shelter — has done much to stabilize the department and its morale. But he said while the dozen officers he supervises would be offered jobs with either KC Pet Project or other city departments, they need to know once and for all whether the department is going to be privatized.

For her part, Friends of KC Animals board president Britton Hunter favors privatization, saying, “We feel strongly that our community and its pets would benefit greatly from privatizing animal control. Our organization is all-too-familiar with animal control’s shortcomings, and we believe it’s time for real change.”

Agreed. The city has had its chance. After chance. After chance. Give KC Pet Project its chance. Now’s the time, with a brand new animal shelter coming late this year. The City Council should seize upon this opportunity to make the change.