On Tuesday, July 19th at 7:00 p.m. the Community and Neighbourhoods Committee will hold a public participation meeting to receive delegations and their comments regarding the City staff report entitled Expanding the Scope of Animal Welfare Initiatives as Part of the City's Animal Services Program. You can read the report here.
In December of 2004, on a cold, snowy night, Harriet came into our lives. Crying piteously, big green eyes beseeching, long shaggy black coat catching the flakes, she came to our door, and when I opened it, she scurried under the car in the driveway. But eventually, driven by hope, hunger and desperation, she responded to my entreaties of “Hey, little cat,” and allowed herself to be brought indoors. Within moments, this little six month old kitten had ingratiated herself into what would become a permanent home.
This scenario repeats itself daily in neighbourhoods across the city, abandoned cats looking for homes. In fact, if recent city statistics are to be believed, nearly 50% of cat owners acquired their pet through means other than going to breeders, pet stores, the Humane Society, the local pound or a rescue group. We did not go looking for a cat, the cat found us.
Many cats are not so lucky. Some are taken to the local Humane Society where they live in cages pending possible adoption. Some live short miserable lives outdoors scavenging as best they can. Some are brought to the pound where they may have a short stay if they are deemed to be good prospects for adoption. A more likely outcome is the death penalty, the fate of 1,420 homeless cats in London last year.
Early in my term on Board of Control, the contract with our service provider, London Animal Care and Control (LACC), was up for discussion, the result of a taskforce on animal welfare chaired by Councillor Susan Eagle. That taskforce had resulted in a large number of recommendations for improving the treatment of animals in London, including the establishment of an advisory committee on animal welfare, introducing spay and neuter programs, and revisions to the contract with LACC.
Although the same system has been in place since 1982, many Londoners are unaware of how animal issues are dealt with by the city. While the majority of those surveyed indicate they are satisfied with how the city handles various animal services, between 25% and 45% say they don’t know. The greatest satisfaction and the least ambivalence is with the off-leash dog parks. But when it comes to shelters and picking up strays, many just don’t know.
The city contracts out most of its animal services to a private for profit contractor, the LACC. The cost of the contract is just over $2M per year. About half of that cost is recovered from licensing fees. The LACC is responsible for animal control, including enforcing by-laws with respect to animals running at large, licensing dogs and “identifying” cats, maximum numbers of pets per person or household and types of pets permitted (no chickens or potbellied pigs), as well as enforcing muzzle orders for pitbulls and biters, and providing “shelter” services.
In 2007, as a result of the work of the taskforce, some changes were made in the agreement with LACC to address the concerns of animal welfare advocates. Staff who had negotiated the deal maintained that there were significant improvements in the proposed agreement, particularly in the inclusion of operating standards and a change in the sharing of revenues from licensing. As well, the agreement included wording that allowed for the potential of working with some voluntary animal welfare groups. In return, the contract was extended for an extra two years, until 2012.
The current system appears to be working reasonably well for dogs. Most dogs are licensed at a cost of $31 per year ($50 if not spayed or neutered) and, if roaming at large, can be quickly returned to their owners. A small but significant number of owners refuse to license their pit bulls since, once branded as pit bulls, they are required to be muzzled in public. There are continuing disputes over what is or isn’t a pit bull.
For cats, it’s a different matter entirely. Cats aren’t licensed, they are “identified” to the tune of $20 per year or $35 if not neutered or spayed. In total, 12,603 cats were “identified” in 2010, a 3% decrease from the previous three year average. Although no hard figures are available, it is estimated that this represents a small proportion of the total number of cats being cared for in private homes in the city.
As it is, despite the fact that LACC ceased picking up “strays” in 2007, leaving it up to citizens to confine and drop off cats roaming at large, approximately 40 cats enter the LACC “shelter” each week, for a total of 2,096 in 2010. A few of these (about 100) will be re-united with their owners, some will be adopted and some will be rescued by volunteer groups to avoid the fate that awaits most, so-called “euthanasia”. Overall, cat adoptions are on the decline while the number of “community generated strays” increases.
Until the report of the task force, there seemed to be little official interest in animal welfare by members of city council. In fact, a number of councillors were openly hostile to the introduction of animal welfare measures and the existence of the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (AWAC). Animal welfare was regarded by some as the jurisdiction of the lunatic fringe.
Nevertheless, advances have been made. The city has begun to establish off-leash dog parks although there continues to be resistance when new ones are introduced. Last year, 228 low income households received assistance to cover the cost of spaying and neutering of cats and dogs. 344 “feral” cats were fixed and colonized. Outreach campaigns to encourage pet adoptions and educate the public on responsible pet ownership were carried out with the help of community-based animal welfare groups. These initiatives are covered by the $100,000 per year that is set aside from licensing/identification fees.
The big question confronting council will be how to make progress in the coming years. The contract is set to expire at the end of 2012. How satisfied are we with the services rendered? Is there a better approach?
A couple of years ago, AWAC brought to city hall former Londoner Bill Bruce, director of animal services for Calgary. He described Calgary’s animal services program. Handled completely in house, the program has 24 by-law enforcement officers. Licences cost less than those in London ($10 for a cat), but fines for noncompliance are high at $250. The program also includes presentations on responsible pet ownership for elementary students, on site full-time veterinary services, an adoption service and a shelter. In 2008, 152 cats were euthanized in a city with three times the population of London.
The cost to taxpayers?
Nothing. In fact, the program did so well from licensing and by-law enforcement that it was able to donate a quarter of a million dollars to the local Humane Society.
That’s the potential. For London, it will take awhile. We have become accustomed to relying on a sole source provider for a generation. It will not be easy to break that reliance. It will mean revamping our bylaws and out perspectives.
But the current system is not working. Each year we spend a little more and get a little less. And the real victims don’t have a voice.
Next week those of us who are concerned about animal welfare in London will have an opportunity to voice our concerns to Community and Neighbourhoods Committee.
Should the city contract out its animal services or should it be brought in house? Can the city provide shelter and adoption services? How do we encourage responsible pet guardianship? How many pets are too many?
These and other questions are on the agenda. Have your say on Tuesday, July 19th.