Wichita animal control's staffing, response times questioned

It is the kind of incident that feeds a perception that Wichita doesn't have enough animal control officers.

It happened the night of Jan. 4, as the temperature fell to about 10 degrees. A woman saw a Doberman pinscher, a short-haired dog, in her neighbor's backyard off East 17th Street between Hillside and Oliver.

"I knew it was going to freeze to death if somebody didn't do something," the woman said.

Starting around 5:30 p.m., she said, she and her husband called Wichita animal control, over and over. A woman answering a city after-hours line told her she understood her frustration "but they were understaffed ... they only had one guy on the night shift, and they were handling other calls that were a priority."

The woman, her 11-year-old daughter and her husband couldn't sleep because of the dog's suffering, she said.

"It sounded like a screaming person ... just heart-wrenching."

At 1:36 a.m., about eight hours after their first call for help, an animal control officer arrived, records show. The woman says her experience told her that Wichita animal control staffing is lacking.

Don Henry, the city's environmental services manager, maintains that staffing is adequate.

Henry, whose responsibilities include animal control, added: "There are limitations right now, considering budget challenges."

One of the people who helps decide how the city spends its money, City Council member Lavonta Williams, said, "I think there should be more staff, but I know right now that we are in a budget crunch."

Pit bull incidents

Last Sunday, The Eagle reported on a 76-year-old Wichita woman whose dog was fatally mauled in its fenced-in backyard by pit bulls from next door — after she repeatedly complained to animal control and city officials about the pit bulls running loose.

A number of people, including the woman's veterinarian, said that an underlying problem is underfunding and understaffing of animal control.

Ellen Querner, president of PALS Animal Rescue, said her decades of working with the city animal control department tells her that staffing is a problem.

"It is not adequate enough to take care of the animals in the shelter or the calls they get on the street," said Querner, whose nonprofit group puts animals in private foster homes until they can be adopted.

About a year ago, Querner spotted a loose pit bull charging at an elderly man near 13th and Hillside.

"When I called animal control, they said they could not get there in time," she said, even though it was a top-priority call.

She called 911, which sent a police officer. The pit bull also turned on the police officer, who drew his gun, right as the dog's owner arrived. The owner talked the officer out of shooting the animal, she said.

If animal control officers can respond to such calls sooner, they have the equipment and training to subdue and hold the dogs, and police officers wouldn't be forced to shoot the animals, she said.

Response defended

Animal control officers prioritize calls this way: Attacks or bites are the highest priority; animals that are neglected, abused, sick or injured are the next priority; roaming animals are the third priority.

Henry, the animal control official, defended the animal control officer's response to the Doberman calls, saying it was reasonable and followed protocol.

The officer found that the Doberman had gotten into a doghouse, Henry said. When the woman saw the dog, it could not reach the doghouse because its chain appeared to be too short, the woman said.

The officer posted a notice to the owner that he had been called to check on the dog and that the owner needed to provide bedding or straw in the doghouse, Henry said. When an officer checked later, around 11 a.m., the dog had been taken into the owner's home.

In cases like the pit bull charging the man near 13th and Hillside, Henry said, people should always call 911 first if they think someone is in imminent danger. Because there are far more police officers on the street than animal control officers, police can respond faster, he said.

Comparing staffing

From midnight to 7 a.m., the city has one animal control officer on call for emergencies. Because more people are inside during that period, that is generally a slower time for calls, Henry said.

At other times, animal control has from two to five officers responding. Sometimes over the holidays, staffing can fall to one officer.

In Omaha — which has about 70,000 more people than Wichita and which responds to roughly 10,000 more calls a year — there are generally four to five field officers, and never less than three during the day, said Mark Langan, vice president for field operations at the Nebraska Humane Society, which contracts with Omaha to provide animal control services. In Omaha a single officer is on call from midnight to 8 a.m.

In the world of animal control, "there is no set formula" for staffing, said Nancy Hill, a board member of the National Animal Control Association. "There's so many variables," including population, square miles and the number and nature of the calls, Hill said.

Told of the Wichita animal control staffing numbers, Hill said, "That doesn't alarm me at all." She said the staffing level "seems within normal industry standards."

Hill is director of the Spokane County (Wash.) Regional Animal Protection Service, which serves a population of about 250,000, or about 115,000 less than Wichita's population.

The Spokane County staffing is similar to Wichita's, with three to five officers at any one time during daytime hours. The Spokane County office has one person on call from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. for emergencies.

But there is an overall problem, Hill said. In her 25 years of work, she has concluded that animal control departments are generally understaffed and underfunded.

"They've kind of been at the bottom of the food chain, which is unfortunate because the primary purpose of an animal control division is to protect public safety and animal welfare," she said.

Bill Prather, treasurer of Wichita Independent Neighborhoods, which represents neighborhood, homeowners' and business associations, said his experience is having to wait on animal control "an inordinate amount of time on the few times" he's had to call for help.

"They are understaffed, no question of that, but I can't think of a public service agency that isn't understaffed," Prather said.

The city of Wichita has addressed staffing by adding three field officers between 2007 and 2008, Henry said.

"I think the city does realize the importance of animal control," he said.

"Animal control has at least been able to maintain during these tough (budget) times."

Neighbors' concerns

The woman who reported the Doberman was being neglected said she is a "nosy neighbor" with good intentions — to improve the quality of life in a neighborhood that sits along East 17th Street, across the street from the Wheatshocker Apartments and golf course at Wichita State University.

Because of security concerns involving her and her family, The Eagle is not naming her.

In the 10 years she has lived in that area, she said, pit bulls have run loose through the yards, sometimes fleeing across 17th and into the golf course as officers try to catch them. Over the last year, she said, pit bulls, including some from nearby houses, have roamed through her yard. Almost every time, she called animal control or 911.

Pit bulls have extremely powerful jaws, and they have a reputation of being bred for illegal fighting. Some pit bull owners say the breed has been the victim of discrimination.

The woman said she is afraid to let her daughter or her pets outside.

Three weeks ago, she said she saw a loose pit bull in her yard. She thinks it came from a street behind her.

Last year, she said, two of the neighborhood pit bulls attacked a dog that had been tied out in the same backyard where the Doberman had been put out in January.

Henry said officers went to a home where the attacking dogs were thought to be living and issued citations, but most of the charges were dismissed because it couldn't be determined which animals mauled the dog.

After the Doberman had been left out in the cold for days, the woman said, she and her family were "emotionally drained."

"I was physically crying the last time I called animal control about it."

According to a city ordinance, a dog can be tied outside for one hour at a time, no more than three times in a 24-hour period, Henry said.

But even if an officer finds that a dog has been tied out too long, "We can't just go into a yard and take a dog," Henry said. Generally, that would require a court order.

But to the woman who said she heard the Doberman suffering, eight hours was far too long for an officer to arrive.

"I can't blame" the officer, she said.

"I blame the system."