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For 37 years, Valley residents had the option of taking stray dogs and cats to either government-funded and -operated Maricopa County Rabies/Animal Control shelters or the Arizona Humane Society, a private nonprofit funded solely by donors.
Both organizations held strays for 72 hours, then either put them up for adoption or euthanized them.
But in August, the board of directors of the Arizona Humane Society voted to stop accepting healthy stray animals. Instead, the Humane Society will focus its $3 million annual budget on helping sick and injured dogs and cats, particularly with a new program called Second Chance, designed to get strays healed and adopted.
Humane Society officials say they are still negotiating with the county, and have not completely discontinued the practice of taking healthy strays. But the Humane Society maintains that because the handling of stray dogs and cats is by law the government's obligation, the private organization should not be involved. Humane Society officials have even gone so far as to say that it might be illegal for them to take in the animals.
Duane Adams, the Humane Society's operations manager, says, "Some of the concerns we've always had is the legality of us holding the strays, when the law clearly states that the stray animals should be taken to the county."
County officials disagree.
Maricopa County Supervisor Betsey Bayless says the fact that the county is ultimately responsible for strays does not preclude nongovernmental agencies from helping out.
By way of comparison, Bayless says, "There's a whole lot of organizations that provide health care for poor people. We don't say, 'Gee, that's against the law. We've gotta close them down.'"
Without the Humane Society, the county pound will have to cater to an extra 15,000 dogs and cats a year--on top of the 57,000 animals it already handles, county officials say.
Liz Lopez, a longtime member of the Maricopa County Rabies/Animal Control Advisory Council, says, "We don't have enough money in Rabies/Animal Control or enough staff to deal with an extra 12,000 to 15,000 strays. It's going to go back to 'catch and kill' because they're going to have to put them down as fast as they come in. There's no room for them."
She adds, "The number of animals that we euthanize is going to double."
Ken White, executive director of the Arizona Humane Society, says his organization will continue to accept healthy cats for the time being. He says Humane Society officials are not satisfied with conditions for cats at the county facilities, so they will not refer cats to the county until the situation improves.
White says animals will be accepted back at the Humane Society after the initial 72hour waiting period--during which owners can claim their pets--to await adoption. But it is unlikely the animals will be returned, as adoption fees supplement the county's animal-control budget.
Duane Adams says people who come to the Humane Society with healthy strays will see "a big sign on the door saying, 'We're full.'" They are encouraged to take the animals to the county facilities.
But, Adams adds, "A lot of people come in and are very upset that they came all the way down here [to the Humane Society]. We don't want to turn them away. We don't want the animals dumped in our parking lot or let out into the street."
White does want to get out of the healthy stray business, however. He joined the Arizona organization in July, after many years as vice president for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C. Within weeks, he began encouraging the board of the Arizona Humane Society to adopt the no-healthy-stray policy. White says Humane Society records indicate the matter had come up periodically over the past six years.
Doug Tessendorf, president of the Humane Society's board of directors, refuses to comment.
White says there are only one or two other private animal groups in the country that duplicate government services by accepting healthy strays without a service contract.
"I can absolutely tell you that the way it is situated in this county is most peculiar," he says.
Humane Society officials don't want a contract. They want out.
That's okay with Mildred Gleason, treasurer of the Arizona Dog Council, a breeders' group. She says the Humane Society has "done a wonderful public service over the years. ... If they can't perform it any longer, they can't perform it any longer."
As for the county, Gleason says, "I feel that it's been their responsibility all the time and someone has been lacking in not realizing that those animals existed."
County officials were not happy to hear of the Humane Society's decision, although they say they are committed to working with the Humane Society to ease the transition.
Dr. Steve Englender, director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health Services, says the Humane Society's decision could boost costs for the county's $5million annual animal-control budget by 10percent--not including capital costs associated with building any new facilities. Some of the expenses would be passed on to Valley cities and towns, which contract with the county for animal-control services.
Final budget figures for dealing with the extra animals will be available in late November, Englender estimates.
Englender and Rabies/Animal Control director Lee San Miguel have had lengthy discussions with Humane Society staff and board members about legal issues.
"We certainly recognize that they have the perfect right to determine their line of business," Englender says. "We may not fully agree with some of the rationale and arguments ... but we're all in the business of trying to help the community and its relationship with animals."
Adams refuses to comment on discussions with county officials. It would be "political suicide," he says, chuckling.
Both sides insist they are not adversaries, and say they are working toward a compromise.
Liz Lopez doesn't see it that way. She says, "Lee [San Miguel] has been really miserable to the people at the Humane Society, insisting that they have to keep on doing what they've been doing, and their board said, 'No way, Jose,' so they're at each other's throats.