County may bite down on animal control

Amy Hamilton

Cute and cuddly pets are nice but the costs associated with how long stray animals live before they’re put to death is a matter of dollars, Moffat County commissioners have said.

As the board looks to cut costs for next year’s budget, animal control may be one area that feels the bite.

Currently, the city of Craig handles animal control services and bills the county on a monthly basis. June’s bill at $1,481 prompted Deb Murray, the county’s former Administrative Services director, to look into the reasons why the costs for animal control have more than doubled in the last five years.

In 1998, the county paid approximately $3,500 for animal control services. That number increased to $7,506 in 2002, Murray reported. In the first six months of 2003, Murray stated the county had spent $4,765, a cost that, if it continued at the same rate, would slap the county with a $9,530 price tag by the year’s end.

“Right now, it’s just like they have access to our checkbook,” said County Commissioner Les Hampton. “We have to determine a figure (to spend on animal control) and not go over it.”

Currently, the city is financially responsible for all stray animals within the city limits and bills the county for animals picked up and managed within the county limits.

Under state statute, stray animals must be held for five business days so owners have a chance to pick them up. Animals without a collar only need to be held three days, said Kelly Hepworth, a veterinarian at McCandless Animal Hospital, the shelter that takes in stray animals for the city and county.

But commissioners are concerned with paying for animals held over the 5-day legal limit.

The costs of keeping the stray animals past the five-day limit peaked in June 2003, when the shelter reported taking in a whopping 99 stray animals, about a third of which were found in the county, said Amy Andrews, the city’s animal control officer.

According to the county’s June 2003 bill, four animals were held at the shelter for more than 15 days, six animals were held between eight to 15 days, seven animals were held for seven days and three animals were held for less than seven days.

The shelter charges $8 per animal, per day.

In response to the invoice, Murray drafted a recommendation to commissioners that the county “keep the animals for minimum of seven days…or consider keeping an animal for as long as ten days to give them an opportunity to be adopted.”

“However, with the tight financial condition of the county, I would suggest that the county not pay for impound fees in excess of ten days,” Murray penned in a memo.

Although the 99 stray animals collected in June was abnormally high — the shelter holds a record of housing 106 animals, Andrews said — all of June’s strays were adopted.

That’s a quite different story than a few years ago.

In June 1999, 33 strays were released back to their owners, new owners adopted 35 and 31 stray animals were destroyed.

“Looking at the adoption rates (for June 2003), I don’t believe euthanasia should be the answer to overpopulation,” Andrews said. “I completely understand (the county’s) budget concerns but it would be unfortunate if they just chose euthanasia without giving the animals a chance to be adopted first.”

Besides, Andrews said, the county doesn’t pay all the costs included for animals held after the five-day limit. The McCandless Animal Hospital absorbs some of those costs. And, Andrews added, some stray animals must be held past the five-day limit for legal purposes, such as in vicious dog court cases or animal abuse cases.

Though the number of county animals picked up in June of this year was high, the numbers of stray animals picked up in other months fluctuates.

“I just feel there needs to be a time period after five days for us to try to adopt pets,” she said. “I can’t say how long that is. Sometimes it takes two weeks to get adopted. I have a hard time euthanizing animals that are adoptable.”

According to Capt. Jerry DeLong, of the Craig Police Department, the city also is reviewing its animal control budget. It spent $19,500 this year on animal control services, a number, which doesn’t reflect employee salaries and a few other factors.

The increased costs of boarding fees, euthanasia and even steeper gas prices are making the department look more closely at how it spends money. In 2002, the city was responsible for 949 animals. That number will be up to about 1,014 this year, he said.

“A lot of people would like to see no animals euthanized, but is that realistic?” he said. “It boils down to a cost issue.”

In 1996, Lifesavers was formed to defer the area’s high rate of pet euthanasia. Seven years ago, only 15 percent of the pet population were adopted and 51 percent euthanized, said adult sponsor of the program, Mary Blakeman.

By comparison, only 27 percent of pets were euthanized in 2002 and almost 35 percent of pets were adopted.

“We’ve gotten the adoption rates up and have had a positive outcome by letting the community know what’s out there,” she said.

Lifesavers advertises adoptable pets from the animal shelter online, in newspapers and via the airwaves. Craig Intermediate School students take part by traveling to the shelter each Monday to chart the new animals brought in.

“Kids go into it knowing that not 100 percent of the animals will get adopted but they see the statistics and feel positive,” Blakeman said.

The program offers students, “a lot of joy and a lot of sadness,” she added.

As the vice president of the local Humane Society chapter, Blakeman said, it can also help residents who are struggling to pay for pet food or provide pet foster care.

But speaking from personal observation, Blakeman noted that more animals get lost or left behind when residents go on vacation in the summer months. Giving those pets a longer lease on life is worth the financial loss.

“You won’t see the positive effect on someone’s life when they adopt a pet if you just look at the dollars-and-cents issue,” she said.

“When pets are kept longer, they have a better chance for adoption.”

McCandless’ Veterinarian Kelly Hepworth tends to agree.

Though he understands the county and city needs to “take care of their bottom line,” there’s a lot of work he ends up doing for free.

“How many people are going to adopt an animal if it’s only here for three days?” he said.

Even if the county adopts a policy on animal control, Hepworth said he would continue trying keep animals at his expense until they could be adopted.

“It’s easy for people to sit down at the courthouse and make decisions on whether animals live or die,” he said. “I guarantee they’d be making different decisions if they were down here.”

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or by email at

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