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Trooper seizure of dogs in North Kenai highlights borough animal control issue

Posted: Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Four dogs spent weeks in a cramped chickenwire cage paneled with plywood. One dog's ribs protruded about half an inch through its skin. In order to see out of the tarp-covered cage, the animals needed to stand on their hind legs and poke their noses out of a small opening.

When the neighbors, who described this scene they witnessed in North Kenai, approached the dogs with food, the animals fought each other, forcing the littlest brown dog into a corner where it would shake with fright.

Alaska State Troopers have seized the apparently abandoned dogs and brought them to a shelter. No criminal charges have been filed, but an animal cruelty case could follow trooper investigation.

The problem is that, unlike in the cities where there are animal control units, on Kenai Peninsula Borough land troopers are solely responsible for handling cases like this one. Not surprisingly, troopers say they bump animal cases down their priority list in favor of human cases.

"The life of a person is way higher than the life a dog," said trooper Thad Hamilton.

While few people would suggest troopers rearrange their priorities and put animals ahead of humans, some are questioning whether the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly should take back up discussions over how to handle animal problems on borough land.

Assembly President Pete Sprague said that will not happen unless there's a tremendous outcry from the public, which he has not yet seen.

Sprague said he has personally wrestled with the issue and considered whether to "take a leadership role and bring the issue forward.

"But this one has never had any traction," Sprague said. "I don't think it's going anywhere."

In 2008, the assembly considered a "vicious dogs" ordinance that would have allowed the borough to contract out with private companies to seize and possibly dispose of dangerous dogs.

But the assembly ultimately decided the ordinance took too narrow a focus and would be difficult to enforce.

Grace Merkes, then the assembly president, sponsored the resolution after hearing from constituents who were attacked by dogs. But Merkes soon realized the ordinance wasn't going to be enacted because much of the public was not for it.

"It's the squeaky wheel. It's the objection from people that don't want to regulate dogs in the rural areas," Merkes said this week. "They say once you start with regulations, you can't stop."

Tim Colbath, founder of Alaska's Extended Life Animal Sanctuary in Nikiski, said he has been lobbying the borough for animal care for at least a decade as the issue has been recycled.

"I hate to say it but it's probably going to take a 5- or 10-year-old kid getting shot by someone going after a stray before the borough is forced to do something," Colbath said.

Sprague said the assembly could consider a service area approach that would allow borough land residents to push for establishing animal control teams in certain locations and not others. But, Sprague said, the service area idea "never really got any traction, either."

In the meantime, troopers will continue to handle the responsibility that still falls under their jurisdiction.

They say animal calls are common, but actually needing to seize a pet because of neglect is rare.

"It has to be something with the health and safety of a dog, not necessarily the moral care," Hamilton said. "Some people sleep with the dogs in their bed, others chain them outside."

When troopers respond to an animal neglect call they check to see if the creature's basic needs are met and if it has any noticeable wounds or other life-threatening ailments.

Colbath says his organization could handle the trooper's animal calls if the borough permitted it.

"We don't want animal control. All we want is the ability to help the animals when their humans aren't doing so," Colbath said. "We're not going to be the barking dog police, but we could provide services to the borough for $10 (per resident) a year."

That cost would pay for catching and caring for neglected animals, Colbath said.

Hamilton said troopers would welcome the assistance.

"Some kind of animal control would be nice," Hamilton said. "It would definitely take some of the monkey off our back."

Andrew Waite can be reached at andrew.waite@peninsulaclarion.com.



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