(C. Proxmire, July 18, 2013)
After over a year of pushing for changes at the Oakland County Pet Adoption Center, citizens in the group Oakland Pet Advocates have turned up the heat by transforming their group into a political action committee taking aim at elected officials who do not support their demands for animal control policy.
The group announced their official PAC status at the July 17 Oakland County Board of Commission meeting. Representatives of various blocs talked about what changes they would like to see and why.
Currently Oakland County is in the process of reviewing policies and building plans to see the impact of potential changes, with Special Projects Deputy County Executive Robert Daddow undertaking an extensive research project to explore possibilities. A new Division Manager, Bob Gatt, has already been making improvements.
There are three resolutions about animal control that were introduced to the County Commission, but they are being held in the committee process until after the detailed report is released. The proposals would require the shelter to be “no kill,” would require detailed reporting on shelter activities such as euthanasia, and would require that animals slated to be put to sleep be first offered to an animal rescue group.
Gatt, who started in December, says the shelter is already doing much of what the advocates want, while “leaving the politics to the politicians.” Gatt, who also is the Mayor of Novi and a former Oakland County Sheriff, has spent the past few months adding information and interactivity to the shelter’s website and reaching out to rescue organization for help.
Some in the advocacy group have been critical of Gatt because his experience is in law enforcement and politics, rather than animal care. His function as Division Manager, though, is mainly administrative.
“I’m very proud of the staff we have here. Some of my top people have over 25 years’ worth of experience,” Gatt said. While he does have an over-all responsibility for the center, much of his work focuses on the behind-the-scenes tasks of scheduling, budgets, monitoring the volunteer and jail trustee programs, working with the various nonprofits involved in animal rescue, and making sure the building and other tools are being used efficiently.
On July 16 Gatt and members of his team met with various rescue groups to brainstorm how they can better work together. He’s implemented a temporary reduction in fees for dogs going to rescue groups, and eliminated the fees for cats now through August 1st. Residents who come in with referrals from staff or volunteers can also get $50 off their adoption fee during this trial offer.
“Our adoption fees were never so great,” Gatt said, noting that animals come to their new owners completely vetted and fixed at a cost that is much less than a vet would charge for those services. But the fees go beyond just covering the cost. “If you get something for nothing, how do you treat it?” he said. “We want to know people are going to take care of the animals they bring home, that they have a vested interest.”
The center has also stepped up its efforts to promote adoptable animals on their Facebook page, on Petfinder.com, and through various media outreach efforts. There is even a new Volunteer of the Month program.
One of the biggest problems the Oakland Pet Adoption Center has is reconciling the number of animals that come through the center, with shortfalls of the center itself. As of last Monday, there were 250 cats, 150 dogs and one pig being sheltered there. A pair of pet rats had been placed in a new home that morning. Over 6,000 animals come through each year.
Adding to crowding problem is the fact that the facility does not have air conditioning. Volunteers and staff put frozen water bottles and fans through the building, and dogs are able to go outside to play in kiddie pools of water. But both Gatt and the advocacy group agree that something needs to be done. $180,000 is currently set aside for building improvements, however the facility is so old that the County will need to decide if it is worth renovating.
“One of the things we looked at was that this building has a basement. The Sheriff’s department was using it, but now we’re looking at possibly using that downstairs area as a place to shelter cats,” Gatt said. Not only would this provide more space for everyone, it could help prevent the spread of disease that comes along with close quarters and dogs and cats mixed together. “It would require an investment though, and we need to figure out the costs and if that is what we really want that to be our long-term goal…There are ideas but we need to research them and do what is best.”
The biggest point of contention between the advocates and the shelter administration comes from what constitutes a “no kill” shelter, and if it would be realistic for Oakland County to maintain such a status. “We do not euthanize any animals unless they are too aggressive or too sick to be adopted out,” Gatt said. This includes feral cats who lack the ability to be loving indoor pets.
Oakland Pet Advocate representatives have pushed for a trap, neuter and release (TNR) program in the county. Gatt said that the Oakland County Health Department does not allow them to do that because of the risk of disease. “Think about where feral cats go. They use sandboxes and flower beds for litter boxes, they can carry fleas and parasites,” Gatt said. “There are a dozen different diseases attributed to feral cats.”
Nationwide the debate over feral cats is heated. Animal rights group PETA is opposed to TNR programs, stating their position online, “Having witnessed the painful deaths of countless feral cats, we cannot in good conscience advocate trapping, altering, and releasing as a humane way to deal with overpopulation and homelessness.
Horrific fates await most homeless cats—they do not die of old age. If you have a cat at home, you know that veterinary care is a necessity. Cats get heart disease, leukemia, bladder problems, ear infections, and more. Imagine if your cat were outdoors and you did not know that he or she was in trouble. Or imagine if, upon seeing an obvious symptom, you could not catch your cat to provide treatment. Contagious diseases such as rhinotracheitis, feline AIDS, and rabies are common in “outdoor cats,” who also sustain puncture wounds, broken bones, brain damage, or loss of an eye or limb after they are attacked by other animals or hit by cars.
During winter months, automobile engine fans slice through cats who seek shelter from the cold under car hoods. If cats escape these perils, they may still fall prey to an agonizing death at the hands of cruel people….Allowing feral cats to continue their daily struggle for survival in a hostile environment is rarely a humane option.” The site claims that outdoor cats live an average of three years, while an indoor cat averages 15 years.
A study by the University of Nebraska gives a data-based approach to understanding the impact of feral cat populations on wildlife and on human communities, explaining the loss of bird species and the rates of disease. “Feral cats can transmit several diseases to humans and other cats, including cat scratch fever, plague, rabies, ringworm, salmonellosis, and toxoplasmosis. In fact, cats are the most important species in the life cycle of the parasite responsible for toxoplasmosis, and in 3 separate studies, most feral cats (62 percent to 80 percent) tested positive for toxoplasmosis. Feral cats are hosts of fleas and ticks that are known carriers of diseases that can be transmitted to humans,” the study said.
However, the idea of killing an innocent animal is too much for some animal advocates to bear, and animal advocacy organizations like Alley Cat Allies provides information on TNR programs which show reductions in feral cat populations. The Humane Society of Huron Valley is an example in Michigan where TNR programs have reduced the amount of cats brought into the shelter.
Courtney Sanders of Madison Heights spoke during public comment at the July 17 meeting, explaining why she believes the shelter should turn away feral cats rather than euthanize them. “When cats are removed from an area, new cats move in and they breed to capacity,” she said. “Today many shelters realize that allowing feral cats to enter their doors is a death sentence and that TNR is a humane approach. More and more shelters are adopting a no feral cats accepted policy as well as a policy of returning ear-tipped cats to the place where they were originally trapped. It’s that simple, we don’t accept feral cats.” She went on to say that state law prohibits pet owners to allow their pets to run free outside. “Don’t allow feral cats into the shelter. Stop using my tax dollars to kill healthy cats,” she said.
Stephanie Newman of Farmington Hills, who runs a blog called The Musings of a Crazy Cat Lady, hopes that organizing as a PAC will encourage the elected officials to adopt the policies Oakland Pet Advocates is pushing for. “We elected all of you and you serve us,” she said. “We need to take care of the innocents among us.”
Other disputes come over what data should be reported, and how far data-gathering goes before it takes away time from the work at hand of saving animals. Some statistics are available on the shelter’s website http://www.oakgov.com/petadoption/Pages/default.aspx. Currently the shelter has a live-release rate of 74%, which is higher than the state average of 52%. Beginning in June they started posting monthly statistics for the public to review.
Oakland Pet Advocates hope that political pressure will make the number even higher. Their Facebook page outlines the plan for the PAC:
“Recruitment of qualified voters is our #1 priority. Our voting blocs will change policy, will improve animal protection laws and public policy. Here is why:
A voting bloc is a system that holds lawmakers accountable on Election Day to voters in their own district – who feel strongly about an issue. This is how it works:
1) Before the lawmaker votes on legislation about an issue, he knows the political group has identified constituents who care about the issue and will inform them whether he voted for or against it.
2) Before he votes, the lawmaker knows that his voting record on the issue will determine whether the group endorses him for re-election-or punishes him by endorsing his opponent.
3) Before he votes, the law maker knows the organization can deliver votes to its endorsed candidate next Election Day.”
There will also be an informational meeting for the Oakland Pet Advocates on Wednesday, July 24, 6:30pm at the Waterford Township Library.
The immediate concern for the Adoption Center is not dealing with the politics involved. It’s getting air conditioning in the building. After hearing about the dangerously high heat and crowded conditions, Andy Didorosi of the Detroit Bus Company and his crew stepped in and offered to raise the funds to make an air conditioning system possible.
“I spoke with Bob Gatt on the phone and he’s very receptive to allowing us to run a fundraiser to get some serious A/C in the building stat,” Didorosi said. “He said he just wants air conditioning for their dogs and cats any way possible. They’re severely underfunded. These 400+ dogs and cats have had a hard enough life. Even criminals get air conditioning in jail; these little souls have done no such wrong. It’s up to us to provide for them the basic comforts for their time in any shelter facility through any means necessary.”
Gatt knows that public help is undeniably important in terms of pushing for funding priorities, getting donations, and – what he says is the most important thing – helping animals find new homes. “We need you. The animals here need you. Don’t look at puppy mills. Don’t look at pet stores. Come to your Oakland Pet Adoption Center,” he said.
Details of the air conditioning fundraiser are still being worked out, but updates can be found on the Detroit Bus Company Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/detroitbus.
To donate directly to the shelter or to learn more visit http://www.oakgov.com/petadoption/Pages/default.aspx.
To learn more about Oakland Pet Advocates PAC, check them out on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Oakland-Pet-Advocates/425590874175868.