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Animal-control officers, Humane Society debate options

| Sunday, Jan. 7, 2001

A shortage of cage space for stray animals captured in Washington County has local animal control officers and the Washington County Humane Society at odds.

The dispute and lack of space mean that people who lose their dogs or cats in Washington County soon may have to search shelters in other counties to find them, some animal control workers say.

Nancy Shannon, board president for the humane society based in North Strabane Township, contacted 68 municipalities in October, advising them about a cage space problem at the shelter along Route 136.

Society officials attribute this to the increasing population in Washington County, and the lack of new animal shelters. The society is asking that municipalities pay $20 for each stray animal sent there.

The humane society is a private charity, with room for 60 dogs and more than 100 cats. The shelter currently is full.

Kym Secreet of Animal Control Services Inc. in Houston said the space problem worsened last summer when the humane society board decided the shelter would become a low-kill operation, and would euthanize fewer animals.

The move punishes the communities that help to fund the charity with taxpayers' money, she said.

'I call every day, and I cannot get animals in there,' Secreet said, adding that people are abandoning dogs on the humane society property. Three times, she has been called there to collect them, but the dogs had been hit in the meantime by cars in front of the shelter.

About 75 percent of animals taken to the shelter come from Secreet, who has agreements for animal control in 20 communities, mostly in northern Washington County, including Canonsburg and Washington. Another 20 percent of the strays taken there come from the state dog warden, and 5 percent come from other sources.

Privately contracted animal control services now pay nothing to take animals to the humane society.

The humane society is changing in other ways. Society officials don't plan to renew a contract with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, under which it collects $10 for each dog that it accepts from local animal control authorities. The 10-year contract expires March 17.

'We simply don't have the cage space for the demand,' Shannon said.

She noted that most counties the size of Washington County have at least two shelters, and most municipalities make private arrangements to deal with stray dogs.

The society spends an average of $80 to care for each animal until it is adopted, she added, far more than the state's payment.

The Washington County Humane Society took in 3,900 animals in 2000, and about 100 were euthanized. Only 20 of those were euthanized due to space restrictions, and many of the others had serious illnesses or were vicious. More animals were put to sleep in prior years, Shannon said.

The society also owns a house next door to the current animal shelter that it plans to convert into a cat sanctuary. Felines will be able to roam the house, instead of living in cages.

Richard Hess, director of the state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, said the humane society doesn't have an obligation to take animals from privately contracted control officers.

Under terms of the contract, though, it must take animals from the state dog warden, who covers areas without privately contracted animal control services.

Jonathan Parrish, the state dog warden for Washington County, said he 'could force them to take state dogs, but we're not looking for a confrontation.'

Shannon said the dispute between the shelter and animal control officials is 'really getting explosive, because we're changing the way they do business.'

Patty Greg, a humane society board member, said she recently attended meetings of local officials to ask that they pay $20 per animal accepted by the shelter, to defray the cost of housing them.

So far, no such agreements have been made.

The feud over where strays will be housed comes just as local governments enter new budget years. Some have budgeted donations to the society, and others haven't.

'We didn't give anything last year, because there was a question of whether our dogs could go there,' Peters Township Manager Michael Silvestri said.

This year, Peters may make a $500 donation but Silvestri said he wants to meet with society officials to discuss the problem.

Chartiers Township, meanwhile, plans to donate $1,000 to the society this year, township Manager Tom Hartswick said. The amount is based on the number of strays the shelter took from the township in 2000.

Secreet said she has been forced to start euthanizing some animals her service picks up, or to take them to shelters as far away as Beaver County.

And Glenn Shipley, who owns Mon Valley Animal Control, said he's used his own money recently to house strays at a local dog kennel because the society has turned him away.

His bill for this in November, for example, was $1,600.

'It's just not feasible for me to continue and I'm very irate about the humane society not taking the animals off myself and Kym Secreet,' Shipley said.

Secreet and Shipley said the other shelters they now are using euthanize animals more quickly. So by the time a dog owner tracks a lost dog without an identification tag, the animal might have been killed, Secreet said.

She said the humane society needs to place more abandoned dogs with new owners, and to stay open longer than the current noon to 4 p.m. business hours seven days a week.

Shannon said the society already provides low-cost rabies clinics, can't keep employees and is planning to take dogs to shopping malls in an attempt to find more people to adopt them.

The group also hopes to find more temporary, foster homes for animals.

Meanwhile, Secreet and Shipley have talked about opening a second animal shelter for the county, but they don't expect to have it in operation before the humane society's contract with the state expires.

The state doesn't offer funding for startup shelters, but if a group handles at least 100 dogs after one year of operation, then state money is available.

Paul Nutcher can be reached at pnutcher@tribweb.com or (412) 306-4535.

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