How long can humane society provide stray animal control services?
JANESVILLE The Rock County Humane Society's relationship with surrounding communities is at a crossroads, and its executive director says residents must come to terms with the true costs of caring for strays.
The problems facing Rock County aren't unique, Executive Director Angela Rhodes said.
On a recent morning, the society took a financial hit after staff discovered a break-in and the theft of about $2,000. Days before, the society took a public relations hit when Janesville City Council members expressed outrage that the cost of the city's contract with the humane society would more than double in 2011.
City Manager Eric Levitt and Rhodes have since negotiated a smaller cost per stray animal, for a total of $230,000. That's up from $114,000 this year.
Even so, changes must come, Rhodes said.
The society, for instance, proposed that in 2011 it get out of the stray animal-control business, for which Janesville pays $70,000.
The humane society building at Arch St. wasn't built for stray-animal control and lacks proper holding facilities. It is small, old and literally sinking into the ground, Rhodes said.
"If something doesn't change, I do think we would close or basically have to become something very different," she said.
Janesville and Beloit officials have asked to society to furnish stray-animal control one more year.
'Such a misconception'
Stray-animal control historically has been the responsibility of governments because strays have been considered a public health and safety issue, Rhodes said. Cities held the animals in pounds for the required seven days, after which they were either claimed by owners or euthanized.
In the 1970s, shelters began agreeing to provide stray-animal control. They took ownership of the animals after eight days and attempted to adopt them out, Rhodes said.
But shelters haven't been getting reimbursed for the full cost of stray-animal control and are looking for new business models, Rhodes said.
"Animal control keeps getting mixed up with our mission," she said. "That's our fault … We've let ourselves become an animal control facility because by taking in the strays that became our identity."
Rhodes wants the humane society out of the stray-animal control business, although the facility on Arch Street could continue to receive and hold strays.
The shelter's real mission is to find homeless animals new homes, she said.
Under the humane society's stray-animal control contract with Janesville, staff picks up animals during business hours. After hours, police officers bring animals to the shelter, where they are met by a humane society employee.
Rhodes said her employees are on call 24 hours a day and are asked to perform law enforcement duties, such as serving bite orders and getting involved in animal neglect investigations or domestic disputes.
One staff member was shot at while picking up an animal, she said.
"I have people here for $8 an hour going out at 2 in the morning risking their lives," she said. "We're not trained, and it's dangerous."
"Both Janesville and Beloit asked us to please reconsider for at least one more year providing those services. We agreed, which was a concession right off the bat."
"There's such a misconception about what we do and who we are," Rhodes said.
Many people assume the facility runs on tax dollars, not knowing the humane society is supported by service contracts and donations.
"We've always operated at a loss but were able to keep our doors open through donation dollars," Rhodes said.
But donated money should be used to care for animals until homes are found for them, not for stray-animal control, she said.
"If I gave $100 to the shelter, I would think and hope that money goes toward making sure an animal goes into a new, loving home," she said.
Why the increase?
Rhodes said the decision to increase the fee charged to Janesville for stray-animal control was based on financial analysis.
"I didn't just wake up one morning and say, 'Gosh darn it, I'm going to charge (Janesville) double," she said.
Rhodes was hired about 18 months ago. When she started investigating the society's finances, she found the cost of stray-animal control was not segregated from the cost of caring for animals after they become the property of the shelter.
"It was all put into a big pot," she said. "The actual details for the expense we were putting into each and every stray animal was not documented."
She said she has spent months gathering data and documenting costs.
"We don't just take an animal and put it in a cage," Rhodes said.
She figured the cost to care for a dog or a cat for seven days at about $150. That includes the gasoline to pick up the animal, staff time, vaccinations, deworming, treatment for fleas, ticks and ear mites, products used and overhead. That includes $16 to $17 a day for basic care. Smaller animals cost about half that, she said.
The humane society next year will charge Janesville about $130 per unclaimed animal and about $65 for claimed animals.
An average of 1,441 strays were collected in Janesville each year between 2006 and 2009.
After seven days, the animals become the property of the shelter. They are evaluated and usually are spayed or neutered and often receive more medical care.
"The animal's outcome is not the bottom line for the city to consider at all," Rhodes said. "That's the responsibility that we assume when that animal on the eighth day becomes our property.
"If we have 40 kennels and they're all filled and we're getting in 20 more cats that we know need to be held for the seven days, you can see where the dilemma comes. We try to manage the best we can."
Rhodes and Levitt said they want to work together to meet future needs.
The trend is for governments to build facilities to hold strays for the required seven days. The facilities often are run by humane societies because they have the personnel and expertise. Rhodes noted that the Rock County Humane Society owns several acres on Janesville's west side.
Rhodes said the humane society is weighing its options.
The society, for example, could refuse to accept strays and accept only the number of animals it could afford based on donations.
"We'd be much smaller, and we'd be very different, but we would still be," she said. "But that has never been one of our goals. If we can be a player in providing animal welfare services in Rock County, that's what we want to do."
The city, too, has options, Levitt said. It could contract services or could partner with other municipalities and build a municipal shelter.
Levitt said he hopes cities in the county will work with the humane society on a regional approach.
"I see the humane society as a strong, potential partner," he said.
The facility issues need to be solved, he said, but the city's long-term goals are to control costs and make sure animals are treated with good care.
"It is a basic health and safety issue a city has to deal with," Levitt said.