DOVER — A recent decision to transfer animal enforcement to the state government has angered the director of the state’s current contractor, marking another step in years-long animal-control issues.
Included in a footnote in the budget bill, passed by the legislature in the early hours of the morning on July 1, is language instructing the Office of Animal Welfare to “incrementally assume enforcement responsibilities for animal control and licensing, dangerous dog, rabies control and animal cruelty laws.”
The decision to transfer responsibilities marks another chapter in the long and complex history that has for years plagued the state and its counties, animal shelters and animal lovers.
To Hetti Brown, director of the Office of Animal Welfare, the change is a welcome one that she says will help government better serve the taxpayers.
To Kevin Usilton, director of the First State Animal Center and SPCA, it’s the result of a rushed and obscured process.
Located in the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, the Office of Animal Welfare was formed in 2013 based on the recommendations of a state task force.
“There hadn’t been previously an office that focused on coordinating programs to support pet owners and companions,” Ms. Brown said.
Some agencies, such as the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, had handled livestock issues, but “the task force felt that we needed a dedicated office” solely for animals and overseeing shelters, Ms. Brown said.
Under the structure created when the state gave away animal control duties in 2006, the three counties and Wilmington were given the responsibility to enter into contracts with shelters to care for animals and enforce cruelty laws.
Shelter workers would investigate reports of animals that were either on the loose or being mistreated, helping to keep people and pets safe.
Currently, the three counties and Wilmington all share a vendor: the First State Animal Center and SPCA, based in Camden. Officials did not anticipate that in the beginning, and Ms. Brown believes it is not the best structure.
The issue is not so much with FSAC and SPCA as it is with how the system is designed, she said, suggesting it has confused some Delawareans.
Shelters that had been interested in providing adoption services could not join with the state because, under the terms of the contract, they would have had to handle enforcement which has special requirements.
By shifting responsibilities once the contracts expire over the next two years, the state can partner with other organizations that excel in helping with adoptions and sheltering animals, while it handles those running loose and the victims of mistreatment, Ms. Brown said.
But Mr. Usilton sees it differently.
The decision came about behind closed doors with little thought, he said.
He believes some of the officials are against FSAC and SPCA at least partly due its euthanasia policy.
The shelter’s website explains its policy: “In our commitment to make available for adoption only those animals that are deemed safe and healthy as pets in a home and community environment, we have accepted the responsibility to euthanize those animals that put the health or safety of those in their environment at risk, as well as those homeless animals whose quality of life will continue to be severely compromised.”
Mr. Usilton believes the state is unprepared to handle enforcement services, noting the Office of Animal Welfare will have fewer workers than FSAC and SPCA currently does.
The state’s budget includes an additional $3 million for the state to hire 14 full-time workers and nine seasonal ones. FSAC and SPCA has 27 enforcement officers.
Also, the 40 or so employees supported by funding from the contracts with the counties and Wilmington will lose their jobs, Mr. Usilton said.
The Sussex contract expires Dec. 30, while Wilmington’s is up on June 30. New Castle’s contract runs out on Dec. 30, 2016, and Kent’s expires last, on June 30, 2017.
A look back
This is not the first time changes to the animal welfare system have taken place. In 2006, the state was handling animal control through DNREC when it began gradually shifting the duties to the counties and the state’s largest city. FSAC and SPCA contracted with New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties until 2012, when Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary took over the Kent contract.
In October 2013, Safe Haven closed. Officials’ decision to euthanize several dogs as the sanctuary shut its doors went against the stated policy and drew criticism.
Referring to the Safe Haven situation as a nightmare, Mr. Usilton said he fears a similar occurrence soon.
FSAC and SPCA resumed control over Kent after Safe Haven closed, and it added Wilmington in March 2014, making it, in effect, the statewide contractor.
Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, raised concerns on the Senate floor when the bill was voted on. He expanded on his thoughts in an interview Thursday.
“I’m just very concerned that it’s not going to happen and it’s going to end up costing taxpayers a whole bunch of money and that animals may end up suffering in the long run,” he said.
Sen. Bonini acknowledged there have been some public issues with the FSAC and SPCA, but said he thinks it should have been a separate bill. His wife was on the board of FSAC and SPCA years ago, he said.
“Safe Haven is a cautionary tale, so we just need to watch this very closely,” he said.
The specifics of the structure have not yet been formulated, although officials hope to develop it over the next few months, Ms. Brown said.
That is something that has Mr. Usilton concerned.
He believes the decision could end up costing taxpayers and prove disastrous for animals.
“They’re not prepared financially or for the kind of work this entails, because you’re picking up living, breathing animals,” he said.
FSAC and SPCA will cease working with the state once the contracts are up, he said. He said he wanted to stay away from what he views as a potentially implosive situation.
The shelter simply will offer boarding for pets and livestock, he said.
But Ms. Brown is confident, as are the lawmakers who supported the language inserted into the budget.
With the Office of Animal Welfare handling creature issues, enforcement officers trained as constables will be able to respond to reports centering on animals beyond just the basic cats and dogs. Exotic animals will be treated on a case-by-case basis, with the Department of Agriculture likely being called in for assistance, Ms. Brown said.
The transition of responsibilities is revenue-neutral, she said, with the state to use funds that are currently paid to FSAC and SPCA by the counties and Wilmington.
She hopes more shelters will work with the state once the contracts end.
“The more organizations we have as partners, the more animals we can place successfully,” she said.