Animal control faces troubled times
Director says lack of funding, high turnover hinder agency’s effectiveness

From left, Animal Control officers Jon Patla, Dan Parsons and Mike Lively beside their vehicle at the La Plata County Humane Society./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

D urango has long had a reputation for being a dogcentric town, with locals often joking that dog ownership is a prerequisite for living here. However, as heartwarming as this notion sounds, it's starting to strain those in charge of keeping dogs in order.

"Since the county continues to grow so much, we definitely are dealing with more issues," says Mike Lively, director of La Plata County Animal Control.

Lately, Lively says he's been trying to shift the agency's focus to address these issues with a major goal in mind: public safety. That's particularly important to Lively since two loose pit bulls mauled a young boy in Pagosa Springs in December 2002. The 10-year-old boy was attacked on the head and ended up losing 75 percent of his scalp and suffering 40 puncture wounds to his face and body. The incident shocked a community and sparked debate over dog responsibility. The reverberations were felt all the way to La Plata County.

"What I learned from that is that we need to keep teaching people about their responsibilities," says Lively. "I think in the past we may have let things slip by too much, like letting people get away too often with not having their dogs on leashes. I don't want to be complacent about such small things anymore. If we are complacent, it will lead to something like what happened in Pagosa."

Recently, Lively asked the City of Durango to increase animal controls fines. Fines for first offenses would increase $10, but fines for second and third offenses would double. Hopefully, Lively says, this will encourage people to be more conscientious about the county's biggest animal control problem - dogs at large.

Lively says that with the opening of the Durango Dog Park, the agency has received fewer calls complaining about unleashed dogs. For that, he says he's grateful.

Animal Control Officer Mike Lively checks on the status of a dog in the La Plata County Humane Society kennels./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

"I'm lovin' the dog park," he says.

But while the number of calls about dogs decreased, the number of fines issued increased. Last year, Lively says the agency issued about 128 tickets. That's a drastic rise compared with the previous five years, when Lively says tickets averaged about 18 per year.

"Those really, are relatively low numbers. If you look at the population of the county, plus consider that we receive about 4,000 total calls per year, that's really not high."

It's not that Lively wants high numbers of tickets issued. He says he doesn't want the public to think of animal control as an extension of law enforcement. Nor does he want the public to perceive the agency as a revenue generator.

Instead, he wants to get the dog problems in the county under control so that Animal Control can adequately address other animal control problems that continue to arise, such as threats to livestock and animal cruelty. It's becoming increasingly difficult, he explains, because the Animal Control agency is understaffed and somewhat under funded.

"I think people think we just drive around looking for dogs not on leashes," he says. "But we don't. We have many duties, and we play many roles. We are also paramedics, counselors and range managers."

Animal Control has four officers, with only two on duty at a time. One officer is responsible for the county; another is responsible for the city. Lively says it's not enough coverage, especially considering that the agency has not added an officer to its staff in eight years.

"The county has grown a lot in that time, but we haven't had more officers to match it. We've had the bike path built, and the city has annexed a lot of land," he says. "These have added to the number of calls we get, yet we still have the same number of people handling issues."

Bubbers, a 2-year-old mixed breed,
approaches his kennel door Tuesday
afternoon./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

The City of Durango and La Plata County jointly fund Animal Control. Each year, Lively submits budgets to both entities. Last year, he says the agency's total budget was $204,000. But this year he will need more in an effort to increase the agency's efficiency and effectiveness.

Lively hopes to get increased funding in an effort to combat the high turnover rate. He reports that in the last year and a half, nine officers have left the agency, mostly because the pay (which Lively reports only as being less than the Western Slope average of $13 per hour) is low, and the 10-hour, on-call shifts are too demanding for the wage.

"The turnover rate has been 225 percent. The job is too stressful, and it's hard to retain people at that pay scale," he says.

In addition, Lively says the budget isn't quite enough to allow the officers to adequately deal with time-consuming cases like animal cruelty. Plus, the city has a cruelty-to-animal law, but the county does not. Lively says this makes it difficult when officers have to pursue a case in the county, because they have to rely on a state law, which is often broad and too severe.

When pursuing an animal-cruelty case, officers often act as proxy lawyers in an effort to prove their cases of negligence, malice or deprivation. Lively says it's challenging to successfully prosecute an individual because of the time-consuming and intense requirements.

"You have to have all of your ducks in a row and all of your T's crossed," he explains. "Even then, it's hard. It's even harder when we have to use the state law that often is too hard to apply."

To tackle that, Lively plans to propose and successfully enact a county animal cruelty law. He's confident that it will pass. But until then, and until Animal Control is able to secure a larger staff and increased funding, Lively says his agency will still focus on educating people about their responsibilities - and the laws that require them to. He says Animal Control officers might not be lax in ticketing lawbreakers, but they will continue to step up enforcement in order to keep the public safe and prevent a dog mauling or some other tragedy.

"Animal control is about people," he says. "It isn't about punishing people for having animals. I think it's important that people make that distinction."





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