Area lacks borough-wide animal control

'Unique to the Peninsula'

Two horses, six goats and a llama have a new home. Chris Heintz began caring for these animals after a local jury found a Nikiski woman guilty of animal cruelty.

The animals’ health is improving. A goat underwent emergency surgery, because its previous owner performed a “backyard neuter” that became infected. The two horses are gaining weight, Heintz said.

What’s troubling, however, is the lack of animal control resources in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, she said. Animal control is limited to cities, and issues like abuse in unincorporated parts of the borough fall under the purview of the Alaska State Troopers.

Officials and advocates agreed that investigations involving animals are not a priority.

“It’s time the borough stepped up and took care of their problem,” Heintz said.

Awareness of the lack of animal control in the area has risen with the court case and a gathering of advocates at the Oct. 8 Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting. It’s an issue that periodically garners residents’ attention, but support for a boroughwide animal control program has failed to gain support in the past, officials said.

In 2008, former assembly president Grace Merkes, after complaints from residents, sponsored an ordinance targeting vicious dogs. The ordinance would have allowed a private contractor to handle dogs that had bitten people. The assembly deemed the measure too narrow and too difficult to enforce.

Two years later, the troopers seized four abandoned dogs at a North Kenai property. The dogs were locked in a pen, starving and fighting. At the time, then-assembly President Pete Sprague said the issue of animal control “has never had any traction.” And the assembly would not take up the issue without public outcry, Sprague said.

Tim Colbath, cofounder of Alaska’s Extended Life Animal Shelter in Nikiski, has lobbied the assembly for more than a decade, but his efforts have resulted in no new measures.

In 2006, Congress passed public law 109-308, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, to ensure that state and local emergency preparedness operational plans address the needs of individuals with household pets and service animals following a major disaster.

The borough has three options to comply with federal law, Colbath argues. It can become a first-class borough, where animal control is mandatory; or it can adopt an existing state statute that gives second-class boroughs the ability to handle and dispose of domestic animals.

The third option, which Colbath created with other advocates, involves establishing an emergency animal resource and response team. The team would fulfill the requirements of the federal government as well as give the borough the ability to address other animal concerns, he said.

“The animal abuse cases going uninvestigated and unprosecuted and improperly prosecuted is unique to the Peninsula,” Colbath said. “If you go to the Mat-Su Borough or the (Fairbanks) North Star Borough, the other comparable second-class boroughs in the state, they both have very comprehensive animal control inside of incorporated cities and the boroughs as a whole.”

Comprised of certified animal control officers and shelter managers, the team would collect evidence to present to the troopers for procurement of required search warrants. This would circumvent costly investigations, he said.

Currently, a trooper who receives a complaint of animal cruelty may apply for a search warrant. If the district court feels inclined, it issues the requested warrant. Although state law requires troopers to investigate such cases, they rarely do so.

Only a handful of animal abuse cases have entered the Peninsula’s court system, Colbath recalled.

Colbath said he realizes troopers’ resources are stretched thin, but thinks the team is a solution. Officials, including borough Mayor Mike Navarre, agree that troopers are swamped.

“The troopers do the best they can, but they’ve got a lot to deal with ... I think all approaches have similar obstacles, like high costs, and is it something the borough should assume responsibility for when it’s already against state law? Maybe the state should step up to the plate,” Navarre said.

People call Heintz with suspected cases of animal abuse at least 10 times a week, she said. As a board member and volunteer of the Alaska Equine Rescue, she has cared for more than 300 horses, all out of pocket.

She is on a list of people troopers call to care for abused or abandoned animals; she helped troopers with the Robin Lee Sickle case.

Sickle, a 37-year-old Nikiski resident, neglected her animals and left them with no food or water for days at a time, according to court records.

A veterinarian must inspect an animal before it is taken into protective custody. There are exceptions to the law, however. During the Sickle case, Dr. Gerald Nybakken inspected three horses.

One of the horses he inspected could not stand. He chemically euthanized the horse at the request of Sickle. Nybakken concluded Sickle’s treatment of the euthanized horse was “definitely abusive” while her treatment of the two remaining horses was “bordering on abuse,” according to court records.

Troopers charged Sickle with one count of animal abuse for the euthanized horse.

Heintz and Colbath argue all the horses were abused — starving causes prolonged pain and suffering, they said.

It took years of litigation, investigation efforts by the troopers and the volunteer work of a local veterinarian to put that one case to rest. It took time and money, a fact the opposition to boroughwide animal control likes to point out. And taxpayers, they said, have been unwilling to pick up the bill.

The Mat-Su Borough’s animal control program had a budget of about $2 million last year, said Carol Vardeman, Mat-Su’s animal shelter manager.

Lawmakers wrote a leash law into the Mat-Su Borough’s code in 1979. Since then, the program has snowballed to unmanageable proportions, Vardeman said.

“It’s so big it’s kind of unenforceable,” she said, “because the pro-animal care side isn’t big enough to fund enough officers to enforce all of the laws. So, we have a lot of unlicensed kennels that cause a lot of heartbreak at different times of the year, different classifications for dogs that bite people. It’s tough.”

The Mat-Su’s shelter, which completed a pricey upgrade in 2009, cared for about 3,800 animals last year. Its program employs four full-time animal control officers, who are generally swamped with dog bite cases, Vardeman said.

She said the officers have had a few well-publicized seizures of starving animals and two horse abuse cases. Their facility includes space to keep large animals like horses, but not for the long-term.

The officers handle animal care duties for the entire Mat-Su Borough, which stretches 25,000 square miles.

Kenai Peninsula Borough officials have not assessed the cost of an animal control program, Navarre said. Cost and management are his main concerns, he said.

Borough assembly member Brent Johnson likes the idea of animal control because he opposes animal abuse and the damage caused by loose dogs. And although dog attacks are a continuous problem, he does not favor establishing boroughwide animal control until residents are willing to pay for it, he said.

Navarre said he plans to examine the costs of a disaster plan for pets, but thinks the two options for animal control — Tim’s purposed team and an area-wide program — are similar in cost and size.

“That’s something that the support isn’t there for borough wide,” he said.

 

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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