Crime & Courts

Wichita appears to be acting more quickly on animal cruelty complaints

The American Kennel Club describes a mastiff as a pet with a "powerful muscular structure" and dignified bearing. That is not what a Wichita animal control officer and police officer saw early last month when they went to a south-side home.

In a backyard dog run, the officers found Daisy, an adult mastiff that weighed about 75 pounds — about half what she should have weighed. Her spine, rib and hip bones jutted against her skin. Pictures of her showed more of a skeletal structure than a muscular one.

To local animal-rescue volunteers, Daisy is the latest poster dog — the kind of case that can raise awareness about treatment of animals, especially those kept outside during harsh weather.

The case helps demonstrate that the city seems to be more willing now than in years past to act immediately to save animals in dire straits, said Ellen Querner, who is well-known in the animal rescue community and who is a former cruelty and neglect investigator for the Kansas Humane Society.

Over the past eight months, Querner said, she has not received the calls she used to get from people complaining that animal control officers weren't following through on abuse and neglect reports.

City animal control supervisor Dennis Graves had no figures on the number of pets seized in emergencies but said there are a handful each year.

During weather extremes, animal control receives more cruelty complaints.

State law and city law require that animals have adequate shelter and provisions. A city ordinance prohibits keeping a pet chained outside for more than an hour at a time, three times a day.

The 57-year-old man who had Daisy, Norman Bush, turned her over to the officers the morning they showed up. The animal control officer cited Bush under a cruelty ordinance, accusing him of not providing proper food, water, medical care, "etc.," a city court document says.

Bush, ordered to appear in a city court next Thursday, told The Eagle he gave Daisy food and water every day but that she "couldn't keep the food in her" because of heartworms. Bush said he had been caring for Daisy for about a year after inheriting her from a relative and couldn't afford to have the heartworm condition treated.

Querner, whose Pals Animal Rescue group arranged for a couple to adopt Daisy, said a test on Daisy showed she didn't have heartworms. Under the couple's care, Daisy gained about 25 pounds in less than three weeks, Querner said.

City's perspective

Graves said his officers immediately seize pets "if they're in an urgent situation."

If an animal's condition is not as pressing but still serious, the city can get a court order to remove the animal, usually in less than 24 hours, Graves said.

"We take cruelty complaints very seriously."

While animal control must respect the rights of pet owners, "the public doesn't want an animal to sit there and suffer," Graves said.

Most people responsibly care for their pets, he said. Still, last year, his department received 597 reports of animal cruelty. Those reports plus cases initiated by officers in the field prompted 2,732 visits to investigate and follow up on cruelty and neglect reports.

'Lots of Daisies'

Despite the laws and the enforcement, Querner said, "There's lots of Daisies out there that don't get reported."

Some people fear retaliation from their neighbors.

Some people "just turn a blind eye to the suffering and assume that something will get better," she said.

"It's the same thing with child abuse."

Wichita and Sedgwick County have trained animal control officers, animal shelters and organized volunteers dedicated to fighting abuse and neglect.

But some counties outside Sedgwick County don't have those resources, Querner said.

The Great Dane

In Sedgwick County, there have been "numerous occasions" in recent years where county animal control officers seized animals in life-threatening situations, said Richard Havens, the county's animal control supervisor.

People's animals get seized when "we feel that if we give them 24 hours to come into compliance, the animal will not survive," Havens said.

It happened three to four years ago when county officers responded to a report of a Great Dane in the icy cold with no shelter. In the frigid conditions, the animal would curl up into a ball. Pictures showed the dog had become emaciated.

At the same time, the owners kept other dogs — in good care — in the house.

An officer seized the Great Dame and took it to a vet. The dog recovered and was transferred to a Great Dane rescue group in Colorado.

The county cited two people for animal cruelty and inhumane treatment over the Great Dane's condition. The two never showed up in court and couldn't be located, Havens said.

The horses, ponies

Last month, a Sedgwick County District Court jury found a man guilty of misdemeanor cruelty to three horses and three ponies.

In her closing argument to the jury, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Amyx listed conditions that investigators found: a lack of food and water; ponies kept in a small pen; one pony that had lost an eye, could not walk and gasped for air; another pony with bones showing, injured hooves and a harness that had become embedded into its nose and neck.

Two of the animals had to be euthanized.

Referring to the defendant, Jody Miles, Amyx said that "he had to have seen their suffering... and yet he turned a blind eye."

The jurors had been shown photos of the horses and ponies.

"The pictures don't lie," Amyx said.

Miles' defense attorney, Nicholas Means, told jurors that Miles cooperated with investigators, that he didn't intentionally leave the animals without provisions, that he provided fresh water and was in the process of getting hay.

"He was trying to keep them alive," Means said. "He tried to make them better" but couldn't afford vet care.

Underlying factor

An underlying cause of neglect or abuse is people acquiring pets without thinking about the time and expense it will take to care for them, said Glen Wiltse, who oversees Sedgwick County animal control as director of county code enforcement.

On average, it can cost $1,500 a year to care for a dog, $1,100 for a cat, he said, citing national data.

Graves, the Wichita animal control supervisor, said he tells people that when they consider getting a pet, they need to realize it is like a part-time job.

In the case involving the ponies and horses, Miles faces sentencing on March 10. For each of the six counts of animal cruelty, he could face a maximum punishment of a fine of up to $2,500 and a year in jail.

With animal control

Ron Walton is one of three to six Wichita animal control officers — the number varies depending on the shift and day of the week — who respond to calls.

On a recent cold day, he drove to a neighborhood near 25th and Amidon to check out a report that two dogs were outside without shelter. When he spoke with the owner, he saw one of the dogs in the house, and that dog looked fine. In the fenced backyard, he saw a black dog that had adequate shelter — a dog house with bedding and a floor elevated from the ground and an open door to a detached garage.

He noted that the black dog looked somewhat thin. But the dog had access to a bowl that held food and water, and Walton noticed that ice had been removed from the bowl.

It took him minutes to check out the shelter and provisions and talk with the woman at the house. As he filled out a report in his van, he said, "It looks like she's trying to do all the things that she needs."

Had Walton found the dogs starving or seriously suffering from exposure, he would have called a dispatcher and informed his boss. Police would have been summoned, and the animals could have been removed within minutes.

In cases that aren't emergencies but where a dog lacks shelter, officers tell owners to provide shelter outside or take their pet inside. The officers try to re-check the situation within 24 hours to 48 hours, Graves said.