Commissioner Ann Murguia pointed to the standing-room crowd of in attendance and pleaded with her fellow commissioners to make animal control funding a priority. She noted that everyone knew animal control was under-funded, and that the large turnout showed how important the topic of animal control is to their community.
In the end, the Commissioners made some positive changes, but didn't completely adopt all of the recommended proposals from their staff, and from experts in the community, to do what needs to be done to fix their situation. And the situation runs deep.
The animal crisis in KCK
Mayor Holland was right. There are major problems with animals in Kansas City, KS. And Commissioner Murguia is also correct, lack of funding is a huge part of that problem.
And the situation is not new -- and the lack of ability to tackle the problem has caused it to grow incrementally over the years.
Earlier this week, the Kansas City Star wrote a pretty telling story about the problems in Kansas City, KS. The problems range from scared joggers, to scared children, to people not wanting to move to areas that are struggling for revitalization, to more serious issues, including a man that was severely mauled by two dogs in April of this year. Those same dogs had been involved in other incidents in the same neighborhood prior.
Much of the problem is funding, and staffing.
The International City/County Managers Association (ICMA) and the Humane Society of the United States both estimate that on average, communities spend about $8 per person on animal control enforcement and sheltering services.
Kansas City, KS spends half that amount.
For a city the size of Kansas City, KS, the Kansas Animal Control Association recommends that they should be operating with about 20 officers, however, they are currently working seven.
"We receive more calls in a day than we can go on," said Animal Control Director Captain Michelle Angell at the meeting. "We have to prioritize."
In addition to the poor funding, decades of mismanagement have increased the issues. While Captain Angell, has worked very hard to improve the situation, years of lack of resources and mismanagement by previous managers are a lot ot overcome; especially with limited resources.
Because of this, resources are spread very thin -- to the point that the city's shelter facility isn't even open for public adoptions and animals there are completely reliant on area shelters and rescue organizations to save their lives.
It's a mess. And it is a crisis.
The Kansas City, KS story cannot be completely told without telling the story of Jimmie Mae McConnell. In the summer of 2006, Ms. McConnell was attacked by two dogs while she was out in her yard gardening.
The dogs lived at the home next door to Ms. McConnell. According to reports, the home did not have utilities and was deemed "uninhabitable" by codes enforcement officers. There were no human residents of the home.
Also according to published reports, Ms. McConnell had called animal control several times about the dogs living next door, and she was scared of the dogs. However, animal control officers never showed. And the dogs continued to live at the home until the day they jumped the fence and fatally attacked her while she gardened.
The dogs were declared to be "pit bulls", and illegal under KCK code. The city quickly rounded up more than 150 pit bulls in the city and killed them.
While at the time, City leaders were quick to blame pit bulls for the attack, the reality is that it was the same lack of responsiveness that has allowed to the community to be over-run by strays that led to Ms. McConnell's death. There are not enough officers to respond to all of the calls. Animals are not attended to. Balls get dropped. People end up badly injured. It's the same story. And in Ms. McConnell's case, it ended in tragedy.
Everyone involved in KCK understands the situation. And most everyone wants to make it better. Nearly a year ago, Captain Angell began meeting with key parties, and the county legal department, to create a proposal to help make things better in Kansas City, KS.
The idea was really pretty simple. Simplify the laws, and make it so that animal control officers could use their limited resources to target the largest problem areas first. Receive fewer calls, but be sure they are the right calls that need to be attended to.
-- Quit wasting time on rounding up free-roaming cats.
-- Quit wasting time targeting owners who had three dogs but were not causing problems (city code prohibited owning more than 2 dogs without a special permit).
-- Quit wasting time on targeting non-aggressive pit bulls -- which was tying up resources while they were held up in court proceedings....and many of the cases ended up being false breed identifications.
Instead, focus the limited resources on the categories that would make the BIGGEST impact in improving public safety:
-- Priority 1: Dangerous/aggressive dogs
-- Priority 2: Stray dogs
-- Priority 3: Nuisance animals
That's it. Focus.
So the animal control advisory committee, which included the KCK Legal Department and Captain Angell put together a proposal for the County Commission. It included a very well-written dangerous dog law (based on behavior). It included a very well-written nuisance dog law (that targeted nuisance/aggressive behaviors before they escalated to bites). It included allowing for TNR for community cats. It included increasing the number of dogs a family could own from 2 to 3.
The proposal also recommended to repeal the city's 25 year old ban on pit bulls -- because any problem pit bulls would be captured with the new nuisance dog/dangerous dog laws, and focusing resources on pit bulls not caught under those laws was focusing resources on dogs that were not problems or threats in their community (and thus, a waste of the limited resources). The repeal of the ban on pit bulls also reflects the recommendation of the National Animal Control Association, the Kansas Animal Control Association, and virtually every organization of animal professionals in the country.
It is also worth mentioning that while the law was originally written to apply to the entire county of Wyandotte County, all of the other cities in Wyandotte County have repealed their bans in recent years: including Edwardsville in 2007, Basehor in 2013 and Bonner Springs earlier in 2014.
Strong support for change
The legal changes were presented to the commission committee. During the discussion, there were nearly 100 people in the audience for the session. Many spoke. In total, 83 people in the audience said they supported the changes to their animal control ordinance in their entirety. Only 10 did not.
The proposal passed unanimously out of the committee.
When the law made it to the full commission, there was a packed house anticipating the discussion. While no official count was taken of the support for each side, I was in attendence and estimate that more than 150 people were there in full support of the ordinance changes. There were roughly 20 that opposed them.
The supporters of the full amendment changes reflected a lot of Kansas City, KS residents, and representation from every single animal welfare organization that was featured in the Kansas City Star article from yesterday. It's worth noting that all of these groups are not only highly knowledgable about animals, but also are investing their personal time, money and resources into trying to improve the crisis conditions in Kansas City, KS. These groups and individuals are so highly invested in the success of the community that they are busting their butts for FREE to try to help fix it.
The roughly 20 people that were there opposing the changes all appeared to be close friends and family members to Ms. Jimmie Mae McConnell. My heart goes out to the McConnell family, who suffered greatly because the system was badly broken. But is was painful to see them opposing the organizations and people who were investing their time and expertise to try to fix a broken system -- and by doing so, defending the status quo. The status quo is the broken system that not only failed to protect their beloved family member, but may have directly led to the lack of protection she needed that could have prevented it.
And in the end, the vote ended up feeling like a snub. While many of the changes thankfully made it through, the lack of willingness to repeal the breed ban will only continue to create havoc and divert resources for the city's animal control officers. This diversion of limited resources will continue spiral of failure that has led to the crisis situation they're in now.
The Final Vote
In the end, the Wyandotte County Unified Government Commission took the following action on initiatives in Kansas City, KS:
-- They approved a law approving the allowance of TNR for community cats as opposed to the former policy that was more geared toward "catch & kill".
-- They voted to increase the number of dogs allowed per home without a special permit from 2 to 3.
-- They approved, at least in principal (they are working on some small, but not insignificant, languange changes in the ordinance), to a very well-worded, breed neutral, nuisance animal and dangerous animal law.
However, in spite of overwhelming support for a repeal, the city council failled to repeal its 25 year old ban on "pit bulls". The law was enacted in the late 1980s when the initial hysteria around pit bulls took hold and while the amount of science, knowledge and expertise has changed opinions across the country, several commissions still insisted on falling back on emotional hysteria instead of facts and expert opinion.
One commissioner even noted that he didn't believe that pit bulls as a breed were a problem, and that it was completely an ownership issue, and still voted to uphold the ban.
And I'll be honest, I'm not sure I've ever seen a city completely ignore their city staff leadership the way that several of the commissioners did last week. When you know that animal control is a huge issue in your city, and your director of animal control and legal department come to you and say they need these changes need to be made to make it better, and you ignore them, the problems are now on your hands as a commissioner. And the problems are still very real.
The final vote on the repeal was 4-4. According to their commission code, a law needs 6 votes to pass. With one commission position open, and one commissioner out of town the night of the vote, it came down to a 4-4 tie, with the mayor abstaining because his vote would not have mattered.
While I"m happy for some of the very positive changes in the community, I don't have a lot of confidence that there will be major improvements until the city begins funding its animal control division appropriately and they actually listen to the people who are working hard to make the situation better.
Photo credit: Kansas City Star