Monday’s decision by the county commissioners to rescind the leash law for unincorporated areas has left few, if any, options for abandoned animals.

Saturday morning, an Avalon man stood at the door of the Ellis County SPCA with a feral kitten he estimated was a little more than a day-old. The kitten’s mother had abandoned it, he said, and he was hoping the SPCA would take it in.

Since Monday, the county is no longer picking up abandoned or surrendered animals under animal control - and the guidelines left in place have been severely tightened as to what can be picked up and under what circumstances.

Kennette Davis said she is incensed by the commissioners’ decision, saying she had a malnourished mother dog and nursing pup dumped at her rural Ennis property a couple of days after the commissioner’s unanimous vote to do away with the leash law.

She said she called the sheriff’s office only to be told it wasn’t allowed to pick up abandoned animals anymore.

Davis, who resides in Precinct 2, said she then contacted her commissioner, Bill Dodson, and was told to either shoot the dogs or “take them to another county.”

In an interview Friday, Dodson said he didn’t tell Davis to shoot or dump the dogs elsewhere. He said he and his office are telling people to contact the sheriff’s office to file a complaint if a vicious or nuisance animal comes onto their property.

“My husband doesn’t want to go dump dogs on somebody else,” Davis said. “I don’t have the heart to shoot them.”

Davis said she now questions what the commissioners are using tax dollars for - if animal control is an area where services are being cut for county residents. She’s concerned about the numbers of dogs that aren’t going to be picked up.

“All of the neighbors are going to start shooting dogs that show up on their property. Neighbors are going to turn against neighbors,” Davis said. “I am so livid about it.”

Davis is mad enough that she said she intends to circulate a petition to have the leash law re-instated. She said she’s looking for 800 signatures from registered voters, which she said represents more votes than Dodson received in his election to office.

“If anybody wants to help me with this, I’m really ready to go do it,” she said. “They can e-mail me at kennetted@yahoo.com.”

As of Saturday afternoon, an online poll by the Daily Light indicated 81 percent of readers (279 votes) were for a county leash law, with 16 percent against (55 votes) and 3 percent with no opinion (10 votes).

Commissioners’ response

In separate interviews, commissioners told the Daily Light they’ve received few, if any, calls about the leash law rescission.

They also varied in their understanding of what can and can’t be done under the ordinance they just passed.

“I do not condone the shooting of any animal, unless it is a threat to me, my family, my pets or my livestock,” he said. “I’m very sympathetic to dogs or cats that are taken to the rural areas and dumped. Most often they are either run over by a vehicle or starve. Those individuals who dump these animals are the real culprits.”

Pct. 4 Commissioner Ron Brown said he’d had no calls, but said if people encounter a vicious or nuisance dog they should contact the sheriff’s office.

“A vicious dog they can pick up. The nuisance dog they can write a citation to the owner of the animal,” he said, saying he had no answer on the abandoned animal issue.

“I don’t know, I really don’t know what they’re supposed to do. They can take care of it or get it off of their property some way,” said Brown, who also serves as a board member with the SPCA.

Brown said the leash law “is not totally done away with.”

“If there’s someone with a pit bull, it had better be on a leash. A vicious dog had better be on a leash. People need to be responsible with their actions,” he said.

Pct. 3 Commissioner Heath Sims said his office tells people to call the animal control officer through the sheriff’s office and file a complaint.

“If the animal is vicious, rabid or causing a nuisance, the officer has the authority and discretion to either issue a citation, which is a class C misdemeanor or impound the animal,” he said. “As of this time, I understand there are different interpretation s of the ordinance. I also believe that it will take a little while for everyone to understand the charges.”

Pct. 1 Commissioner Dennis Robinson said he believes the ordinance allows animal control officers to pick up “nuisance” dogs.

Room at the SPCA

More than half of the kennels at the SPCA were empty on Saturday, a reflection of the county’s new restrictions on picking up animals. Workers said they were surprised by the leash law’s rescission and that they’ve had to contact other shelters to transfer in some animals so as to offer people a choice for adoption.

Under the county’s amended ordinance, only vicious or rabid animals can be picked up - and neither of those categories can be adopted out by the SPCA, they said.

The SPCA can take in animals directly under its surrender program - but a fee is charged to the person bringing the animal.

Commissioners have been critical of county residents they say were using a “loophole” in the prior ordinance to surrender their animals to the county to take them to the animal shelter.

Since the leash law rescission, Dodson said he’s been contacted by a woman who said someone had dropped off a cat at some point and it had reproduced to 50-plus offspring.

“(She said) she could not continue to feed them. She stated she guessed she would have to dump them in a rural area,” he said. “Are the residents of Ellis County expected to continue spending about $300,000 each year on animal control for irresponsible pet lovers? These people mean well but the responsibility to neuter and take care of their animals falls on their shoulders, not the taxpayer.”

Robinson said the previous ordinance required the county to dispose of any animal - whether it was a owner-surrender or a stray.

“How does the county know whether the dog is a stray animal or not?” he said. “I think that was the purpose of changing the wording of the ordinance so it is more directed to animals that are vicious or rabid or a danger to the community.”

Robinson said animal owners were deciding they no longer wanted their pets and were calling the sheriff’s office to pick them up.

“Then the taxpayers were left with paying the cost … when the pet owner should be paying,” he said.

Cost cited

Commissioners have cited cost in doing away with the leash law. Figures provided by the auditor’s office for 2005-2006 indicate two deputies used as animal control officers cost $126,569.35, including salaries and benefits. The county paid the SPCA $97,908 under its contract, with miscellaneous expenses of about $2,300 also paid. An actual expense was unavailable for the two animal control vehicles, but if IRS-expensing is used, the estimated cost was about $64,080.

Through August of this year, the county has taken 2,129 animals to the SPCA, a little more than two-thirds of the 3,071 animals received so far this year. The SPCA also takes in animals under a contract with the city of Ennis and accepts owner-surrenders for a fee.

Of the 3,071 animals, 2,347 have been euthanized, 326 were adopted, 196 were claimed by their owners and 98 were transferred to rescue groups.

The county took 2,144 animals to the SPCA in 2005 and 2,514 in during 2006. SPCA figures indicate an increase of about 14 percent in the number of animals brought to the shelter by the county each year.

End of the matter?

“This ordinance was not working because there were still dogs not on leashes, so we made an adjustment,” Sims said. “Instead of ‘running at large,’ we changed it to ‘nuisance.’ Is this the final ordinance? Probably not, but something needed to change and this has certainly stirred up emotions. … Hopefully, it will stir up creative thinking.

“It’s funny how we can pass a $33 million budget and not hear a word, but make an ordinance to decrease costs involved in dog control that should bring accountability to dog owners that are not being responsible and you would think the sky is falling,” he said, noting there are health and safety codes in place relating to dangerous dogs and laws that protect against people not controlling their dogs.

“I honestly struggle with the leash law because we are dealing with unincorporated parts of the county and people move to the country to get away from city requirements and costs,” he said. “I ask, ‘Should folks moving into the country assimilate to country way of life or should country folks change to town way of life. I know there are named developments with multi-houses and maybe those areas need to be considered differently than just lots out in the country.”

Sims said voters might want to get up a petition requesting an election to require dogs and cats to be registered on an annual basis. A dog found to be unregistered would be in violation and impounded.

“How much are voters willing to spend for (animal control) service?” Sims said. “Is it the responsibility of government and taxes or the choice of individuals and where they choose to reside?”

Dodson said there are issues to be addressed but a leash law “is not the answer.”

“This law does not permit my dogs to run at will or hunt with me on my farm without being subject to a fine for not having them restrained,” he said. “Possibly all dogs and cats need an identification tag or chip to identify the owner for accountability and contact if the animal gets lost.”

As with the other three commissioners, Dodson said he would continue to seek a “practical solution to this problem.”

To varying degrees, the commissioners said options had been looked into and options are still being considered.

“I didn’t say this was perfect, but, like I’ve said, we’ve got to get to some happy medium,” Brown said, saying his precinct crews have typically picked up dead animals and buried them in county right-of-way. During discussion in the commissioners court meeting, it was noted animal control officers have been taking dead animals to the SPCA - where a per-animal fee is charged, dead or alive.

Robinson said Brown, as a board member of the SPCA, has tried to come up with solutions.

“I know he’s worked diligently with them to curb costs anyway we can,” Robinson said. “Commissioner Brown has been diligent in trying to find a good solution to the problem. He’s concerned and he loves animals. What the best solution is, I’m not sure. It’s just something we thought would help the situation. We’ll give it a try and see how it works.”

E-mail JoAnn at editor@waxahachiedailylight.com