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 Town's Animal Control Policy Still on Leash

March 5, 2008 - So long as they don't pose an immediate and serious physical threat to a person or another animal, stray and nuisance animals will continue, for the time being, to enjoy weekend amnesty in Knightstown.

In January, Linda Bir-Conn, director of the New Castle/Henry County Animal Shelter, told the Knightstown Town Council that her workers will not respond to non-emergency calls regarding strays that come in after the shelter's operating hours. She said that the $4,800 the town annually paid NCHCAS for animal control services didn't give the shelter enough money to pay someone to pick up strays on the weekends.

In the past, the Knightstown Police Department had tried to deal with complaints about stray animals that came at times when the NCHCAS wouldn't respond - even keeping three dogs at the station one weekend. Those days, however, are over.

At the town council's Feb. 20 meeting, Knightstown Chief of Police Danny Baker explained that the KPD is not equipped to feed, house and care for strays. While he said officers would still respond to calls involving vicious animals, he said his recommendation was that citizens be asked to direct calls involving strays to the animal shelter.

Council member Terry Guerin asked the council's attorney, David Copenhaver, whether the town has any obligation other than urging town residents to call the shelter. Copenhaver said the general rule is that the town would only have a duty to act if it's aware of a problem and has "notice that there's a dangerous situation."

"The best way I can advise you would be to equate it to a stop sign," Copenhaver told the council. "If you have an intersection that you know is dangerous - you have repeated reports about … accidents and you don't put up sign - you'd probably have some liability. … Well, this is the same thing. If you have notice of a dog out harassing people and being dangerous and you take no action to deal with it, then you may have some liability."

Baker told the council that if the KPD receives a report of "a vicious animal or a dangerous animal," officers will respond and take appropriate action. However, he said if it's "just a dog up in the cemetery or running down the street," then he thought animal shelter workers need to be called.

Former council member Cort Swincher said he thought the town's animal control ordinance also applied to strays and nuisance animals, not just those deemed vicious. He suggested the council review the language in the town's ordinance with that in its contract with NCHCAS and questioned the effectiveness of telling town residents to call the animal shelter to report nonvicious animals on weekends if the shelter's workers aren't going to respond.

"I hate to leave the responsibility on the citizen," Guerin said. He asked whether the town and KPD might be able to work out an arrangement with a local veterinarian to shelter animals picked up over the weekend until NCHCAS workers can come get them.

"Vets won't do it without pay," Baker said. "We're not equipped to handle animals. If we get a vicious animal, then we'll deal with that vicious animal accordingly when we get there. But to just pick up a dog that's tearing up trash or running loose, were not equipped either to carry them or maintain them for the time period we need to have. The only other option would be to hire a dog catcher and set up a kennel."

"It kind of puts us in a bind," council member Steve Nelson said. Under the town's contract with NCHCAS, he said he thought town residents had a right to call the animal shelter to report strays and other nuisance animals.

Guerin asked Copenhaver how other small towns deal with strays and other nonvicious nuisance animals. Copenhaver said New Castle and Middletown, which also have animal control contacts with NCHCAS, face similar issues involving law enforcement and animal control.

"They all have this problem," Copenhaver said. "It's been my observation that there's been a tension between law enforcement and animal control officers with these very same things countywide."

Copenhaver told the council that it would be "a very costly and … difficult thing" for the town to establish its own animal control department to deal with these issues. In addition to responding to citizen complaints, he said the town would also have to address issues involving the "humane care and treatment" of impounded animals.

At the council's request, Copenhaver said he would contact the police chiefs in Middletown and New Castle to see how their departments handle complaints about strays on weekends. He said he would ask these chiefs to contact Baker with any suggestions they have.

Pending receipt of additional information, the council agreed to table further consideration of its contract with NCHCAS. For now, the town will continue its animal control contract with the animal shelter on a month-to-month basis.


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