Weak Economy Puts Strain on ACOs

(from Maine Townsman, November 2009)
By Liz Chapman Mockler

The weak economy is putting additional strain on animal control officers across Maine, who are finding an increasing number of abandoned pets, especially cats, and are doing their best to find them homes rather than a veterinarian who will quietly kill them.

Don Alexander, ACO for Raymond and Frye Island in southwestern Maine, says he’s seen situations where puppies, cats and kittens are brought to summer resorts/campgrounds and then abandoned. He surmises that vacationers stop at animal shelters on their way to Maine so they can have pets during vacation, with no intention of keeping the animals.

Alexander rounds up abandoned animals each week and hauls them to the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland (ARLGP) in Westbrook, which serves 16 municipalities by contract. Like other ACOs, Alexander likes knowing that the League’s mission is to find good homes for the roughly 4,000 abandoned animals it takes in each year rather than euthanizing them.

Toni McLellan, ARLGP director of operations and interim executive director, praised the animal control officers she works with for doing a thankless job that brings little recognition and a growing workload.

“They absolutely do a good job,” McLellan said. “Experience and training factor into it, but they do a heck of a job. And it’s not an enviable job and that makes it all the harder to do.”

Herding Cats

Cats are easily Maine’s most difficult animal control challenge. And the state is not alone. Easier to acquire than dogs with the reputation for being independent and aloof, cats are often the smallest victims when something goes wrong -- such as foreclosure or divorce or perhaps just lack of interest.

McLellan explained that the problem, while vexing, is natural and requires human intervention. Cats breed so quickly that, mathematically speaking, just one male and one female could potentially sire 21,000 cats in four years, given the typical three litters per couple each year.

The most crucial part of the answer, she said, is getting cat owners to spay or neuter their cats, and for the League and others to make sure all adopted kittens are “fixed” when they leave for a new home.

McLellan said animal shelters and veterinarians across Maine are sponsoring free or low-cost clinics to get cats and dogs spayed and neutered, as well as vaccinations and other necessary medical shots.

The refuge league in Westbrook, in business since 1911, has seen a significant spike in animal “surrenders” and the stray population this year, McLellan said, estimating that 5,000 animals would be sheltered in 2009, up from the average 4,000 of recent years.

She, too, blames the bad economy on the increased number of animals and said the situation with foreclosed homeowners and the jobless make for “heart-breaking” stories.

For example, neighbors or landlords will find cats and kittens left behind when the family moves. “Sometimes you find them eating carpet lint” to survive, she said.

ACO Alexander contends that only one in 50 cat owners will bring their animals to the shelter if given the option of abandoning them.

“They figure God put them on this earth, he’s going to take care of them,” Alexander said in a recent interview with the Townsman.

In reality, though, the municipality ends up taking care of them.

Not all cases involve willing abandonment. Alexander said that sometimes a family will call to report a stray cat, but when he arrives to take it away, he finds out it actually belongs to the family that called.

Alexander says that occasionally he rounds up a nice, friendly, beautiful dog, “and I think someone will call by morning, but you end up taking them downtown.”

Same Problem, Different Town

ACOs and other municipal officials interviewed recently blamed the economy for a noticeable up-tick in the number of animal-related calls and investigations.

Debra Estrella, Portland ACO, agreed with other officers that the law requiring that dogs be licensed and vaccinated for rabies helps keep down dog-related problems. Barking dogs are always a nuisance and that, combined with dogs that roam at large, present most of canine-related calls.

Stray dogs also are not usually stray for long, according to ACOs, since their owner can be found and they tend to be far more interested in getting their dogs back than can be said about cat owners.

Dog bites and rabies cases take priority over everything else, Estrella said, followed by calls about wild animals, cruelty cases and injured birds and wildlife.

Cats? “There’s no way I can possibly keep up” with the growing stray cat problem, said Estrella, who works for the police department and whose partner was laid off last year.

Some ACO responsibilities have been almost ignored out of necessity, she said, such as beach and park patrol.

Fort Kent Police Chief Kenneth “Doody“ Michaud, who takes animal control calls along with everything else, said he’s tough-nosed when it comes to dog owners. If he finds a dog that has not been registered, the owner promptly gets a court summons.

“We don’t play the game,” Michaud said.

In the northern Maine town of 4,200, word has gotten around and so dogs are not a concern. Michaud said his department charges the smaller surrounding towns of St. Francis, St. John, Wallagrass, New Canada and Eagle Lake just $100 a year to answer dog complaints as long as they, too, aggressively enforce dog licensing laws.

In two years, there have been only two stray dogs in Fort Kent, Michaud said.

But as in virtually all Maine communities, stray and abandoned cats present a much larger problem, he said.

“We can’t afford to have them all put down,” Michaud said of the kittens that pop out from under barns or garages, particularly in the spring. He is grateful that a PAWS group based in Fort Kent agrees to take the litters and has had good success in finding them homes.

Adult cats, however, get only a one-day stay and then they are taken to a local veternarian’s office and euthanized.

“We’re getting more and more cat complaints,” said David Townsend, ACO for the city of Calais in Washington County, where the shelters are full and officials aren’t sure what they’ll do.

“The big thing is that there’s no place to get rid of them,” said Townsend. “The shelters are all full. All the towns have the same problem.”

Townsend also covers the town of Robbinston. “I hate to tell (people) that there’s nothing else we can do but have them euthanized.”

“I can’t lug them all to my home,” said Townsend, who owns two cats and a dog.

Baileyville Police Chief Philip Harriman praised the town’s ACO, Acacia Emery, for working well with residents and educating them on their options and solutions to animal-related issues.

“We’re really happy with the way she does her job,” the chief said.

Harriman said Emery, working in a town of 1,600, collects 10 cats a week on average and works with the Bangor Humane Society to find a way to save the animals from euthanasia. If a cat is found that obviously has been well taken care of, fliers are posted around town to find the owner.

Feral cats often end up at the humane shelter.

There are few dog problems, but town staff works as quickly as possible to resolve them, Harriman said.

“I don’t think there’s anything that creates a more irate citizen” than a barking dog, he said.

A Menagerie

Although cats are causing the most problems, and taking the most time of ACOs in many towns, Maine people are letting their other animals go, too, Raymond ACO Alexander says.

Alexander said some people can no longer feed both themselves and their livestock right now. Cows, horses, chickens and pigs have been released to roam free, said the 20-year ACO veteran.

McLellan from the animal refuge league in Westbrook said only about half of the 400 animals at the shelter at any one time will be cats. Another 30 will be dogs, and the rest will be smaller critters found trapped, injured, lost or abandoned: rabbits, rats, mice, gerbils and birds, among others.

In Auburn in early November, a family lost its house to a fire caused by a space heater that was being used to keep pet snakes warm. Both Auburn and Lewiston are among Maine municipalities trying to deal with an increase in abandoned pets this year, especially cats that are quickly overtaking some neighborhoods.

Jimmy Smith, ACO for the town of Meddybemps, said he has seen evidence that livestock has been left to wander. But the town doesn‘t have much of a cat problem and has carefully monitored any hints of abuse since a notorious case in 1997 involving 16 abused dogs.

McLellan said she and others failed to see the true impact of the recession until this year. “There’s a lag time” once a recession begins and when better times return, she said.

The good news at the Greater Portland rescue league, which serves so many southern Maine communities, is that 97 percent of all cats brought to the league are adopted, she said.

The League depends on their contracts with the 16 communities to help balance its annual budget, but also relies on hundreds of volunteers, in-kind donations such as bedding and all of the food consumed by the animals, cash donations and foster homes to keep up with the animals being turned in.

Liz Chapman Mockler is a freelance writer and media advisor from Augusta, lizmockler@hotmail.com