Connecticut task force eyeing better conditions for municipal animal shelters [NHRegister]

February 23, 2015

Article as it appeared in the New Haven Register

A dog may be man’s best friend, but in many ways we are failing them, which is something a new state task force wants to change.

The Humane Treatment of Animals Task Force is investigating how to reduce the rate at which homeless pets are euthanized and make sure every adoptable dog goes home to a loving family.

State Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, introduced the bill that created the task force at the urging of North Haven First Selectman Michael Freda, who now is its co-chairman.

“Many of us at the municipal level began to see how our animal shelters became even more stressed with the number of animals being dropped off and how animal control officers were finding pets being abandoned,” Freda said.

In one community, he knows of a litter of puppies that was recently abandoned, Freda said, as well as a litter of cats that was dropped off in a wooded area known to be inhabited by raccoons and coyote.

Statewide, an average of 88.42 percent of dogs impounded are either reunited with their owners or successfully placed in new homes. A number of cities and towns maintain a 100 percent rating, including Guilford and Madison, which returned to its owners or found homes for all of the dogs brought in last year.

But that’s not the case in some municipalities, where the highest euthanasia rates are found among the biggest cities and towns in the state. Bridgeport tops the list, with a “live release” rate of 62.66 percent, meaning more than one in three of the dogs impounded were euthanized either because they were deemed unadoptable or a home couldn’t be found for them.

New Haven, West Hartford and Hamden also are at the top of the list of euthanasia rates. New Haven euthanized slightly less than 30 percent of its dogs, taking in 658 dogs and euthanizing 193 of them. In West Hartford, 192 dogs were impounded and 53 were killed, and in Hamden, which does not have its own animal shelter and relies on renting space in neighboring facilities, 25 of the 105 animals taken in were euthanized.

The New Haven Animal Shelter now requires that no dog that is adopted is allowed to go home before being spayed or neutered. Statewide, adoptable dogs that haven’t been fixed come with a state voucher that reduces the cost of the spay or neutering, but as many as half of those vouchers distributed go unused. As a result, the New Haven shelter adopted the policy of having the animal fixed on its way out the door, New Haven Humane Commission Chairman Mark Bailey said.

“The new owner picks them up at the vet’s” after the procedure is done, he said, “and I think that’s the way it should be statewide.”

It wasn’t hard to gain support for the bill creating the task force, Fasano said The topic of animal reform is popular in the state legislature, which last year strengthened protections for consumers purchasing puppies at pet stores. The task force bill easily passed the House and the Senate, Fasano said.

“I put the bill in and it gained an awful lot of support,” he said. “That made it easier.”

Northeast Council of Governments Animal Control Officer Diane Collette is co-chairwoman of the task force and other members include Bailey; Dr. Kimberley McDonald, a veterinarian; Paula Poplawski, chairwoman of the New Britain Humane Commission; Sgt. Paula Keller, a New Britain police officer who oversees the city’s animal control operations; Raymond Connors of the state Department of Agriculture; and Cynthia Theron of the state Judicial Department’s Court Support Services. West Haven Mayor Edward O’Brien also is expected to join their ranks, Freda said.

“We are finding that there are so many issues — shelter conditions, animal cruelty, stress,” Freda said, which is why the task force is expected to extend its work through early next year.

And the longer dogs are kept in cages in shelters, the less likely they will end up adopted as the stress takes its toll.

“There’s a great deal of kennel stress on our shelters — it’s like us as people being locked up,” Bailey said. “Being an animal lover myself, I saw a real need to address these types of issues.”

Even those who aren’t animal lovers should be concerned, Freda said. “There is a great deal of research that shows that animal abuse is connected to child abuse and domestic violence,” he said.

“One of our important goals is to improve the statistics of finding forever loving homes for these animals in the shelters,” Freda said. That can be accomplished in several ways, he said, through the development of training and standards for animal control officers, limiting the ability to breed dogs that contribute to the overpopulation, increasing and advancing the relationships between shelters and rescue and volunteer groups, and stricter legislation regarding spay and neutering requirements, licensing and microchipping.

The task force also will investigate the possibility of establishing a registry of people convicted of animal abuse to assure that they are no longer allowed to adopt animals from shelters, Freda said.

Rescues and volunteer groups are key to helping keep animals off euthanasia lists, he said.

“We have seen several municipalities with great volunteer programs,” he said, pointing to the volunteer group associated with the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter in Branford. “They have clearly delineated roles and responsibilities and have created a vibrant volunteer force where there is no conflict.”

The volunteers regularly walk the dogs, which is essential in keeping down kennel stress, which can lead to undesirable behaviors that makes the dog less desirable to potential new owners.

“We are not going to propose that a volunteer program be mandated, but if municipalities want to adopt a robust model, they can jump on board with that,” Freda said.

There also are potential financial benefits to establishing a task force on animal welfare, Freda said, because it opens up opportunities for additional funding from private and nonprofit organizations.

Ultimately, the task force will come up with a list of recommendations and send them to the legislature, Freda said, where they likely will go before the Environment Committee and the Planning and Development Committee. They’ll also likely be sent to the Department of Agriculture, he said, which oversees animal control.

“When the state has a designated state task force on animal welfare, it can receive grants from organizations,” he said. “They look favorably on any state that has a task force devoted to animal welfare.”

Regionalization also is in the sights of the task force, Freda said. North Haven has been discussing opening a formal regional shelter with Hamden for several years, he said. Hamden currently rents space at the North Haven Shelter because it doesn’t have a shelter. When there is no space available in North Haven, Hamden animal control officers must find space elsewhere. For years the town operated its animal control facilities out of Merryfield Animal Hospital, but since that arrangement ended more than a decade ago, it has looked to other municipalities for space.

Regionalizing also might make sense when shelters outlive their useful life, Freda said.

“Where there is a situation where a municipality may have a dilapidated shelter it might makes sense to regionalize with another municipality,” he said. “That may be one of the recommendations that we make to the state.”

The state is likely to be receptive to such a recommendation, Fasano said. “Regionalization is something that hits a chord in the state legislature.”

The task force has met monthly since last fall and has heard from a wide variety of people and organizations, Freda said. “They are happy we finally have a forum to address and change the things that have happened in the past,” he said.

That communication is important, according to Bailey.

“Even though Connecticut is a relatively small state, the various shelters and rescues tend to operate in relative isolation,” he said. “They all have the same problems but they don’t pool their resources to find solutions.

“We have to first get people taking to each other and creating a supportive environment for one another,” he said, and the task force is the ideal place to foster that cooperation.

Bailey said that at task force meetings, people from all facets of the spectrum come together and discuss how to make conditions better for homeless animals

“The meeting itself is facilitating communication between animal control officers and rescues who are coming together to talk about these issues,” he said.

The task force’s primary goal is to save lives, all agreed.

“When a dog is healthy and adoptable, there is no reason to euthanize them,” Bailey said. Most of the dogs that come through Connecticut shelters are healthy and deserve good, loving homes, he said.

“I would like to see us get to the point in Connecticut where all healthy and treatable dogs find homes and we never euthanize a healthy dog,” he said. “If your shelter gets crowded, that’s not an excuse to euthanize — that has to be our standard. If a shelter gets crowded, we need a system in place where they can contact another shelter or rescue.”

In New Britain, dogs aren’t put down unless there’s no other option, said Keller, who took over management of New Britain’s animal control facilities a year and a half ago.

“We are keeping our dogs a lot longer and we’re not euthanizing them for space,” she said. “We are not euthanizing adoptable dogs and keeping them as long as they remain healthy physically and psychologically.”

The key is to keep pets out of animal control facilities, she said.

“My goal ultimately is to see less dogs being taken in to facilities across the state,” she said. “I think it’s going to have to be combination of using a campaign of awareness and publicly educating potential dog owners about what it takes to own a dog and the laws regarding dog ownership.”

Enforcing licensing regulations is important, she said, because then the municipality knows what dogs it has and if a dog is picked up, it can easily be returned to its owner. “It never has to end up at our facility,” she said.

Breeding is another area that needs to be addressed, she said. New Britain requires completion of a breeders permit application for anyone who wants to breed a dog, and that application requires that the animal be vaccinated for rabies and parvovirus, microchipped, has proof of home ownership, liability insurance coverage for the dog being bred and a copy of the dog’s pedigree or a DNA test to prove the dog’s breed.

Those living in multifamily homes can’t get a permit, and home inspections are performed before the permit is issued. A kennel license is required to breed more than one dog, and animals can be bred only once a year. The animals must be provided with proper shelter, clean water and nutritious food, and the animal’s environment must be “properly maintained at all times.”

“I would like to see the state pass a law against breeding,” she said. “We have to start restructuring the breeding process — unless a municipality adopts an ordinance, there is nothing to control it.”

It’s also a matter of money, she said. Municipal shelters take in about 18,000 animals a year across the state, she said, at a cost of at least $100 an animal.

Bailey, Poplawski and McDonald are working on a subcommittee of the task force on how to better equip shelters to deal with the homeless pet population. They have sent out a survey to every shelter asking questions such as intake routines, how the dogs are evaluated, what medical care is available to them, how the animals are cared for on a daily basis how the dogs are networked on social media and other means.

That information will be used to determine what can be done to improve shelter operations and provide shelters with the tools they need to successfully find new homes for the animals, he said.

“It is incredibly good for us as a society and a culture to save these animals,” Bailey said. “It brings out the best of us – we are fantastic human beings when we go the extra mile to help an animal in need.”