Without enough cases to warrant a full-time animal control officer, islanders struggle to protect San Juan County pets and livestock that are falling through the cracks.
“We just don’t have that many cases,” San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs said, noting that in the past, the sheriff’s department contracted retired deputy, and Animal Protection Society of Friday Harbor board member, John Zerby, but there has not been a need for that over the last few years.
San Juan Island Deputy Eric Peter will attend a free class offered by the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission titled “Livestock and Law Enforcement,” toward the end of the month. Topics of discussion at this course include stray and trespassing animals, livestock theft and abused and neglected animals.
“We get calls [about animal neglect] from all of the islands,” Julie Duke, founder of the nonprofit Island Haven Animal Sanctuary said. Duke is in support of a county deputy being trained as an animal control officer.
“Currently, there really isn’t anything anyone or any organization can do on the island without the permission of the owner,” she said.
Duke began Animal Haven five years ago after seeing a post on Facebook which advertised free horses. This worried Duke.
“People told me this happens frequently. A farm shuts down and sells, and the animals don’t have anywhere to go,” Duke said. That’s when she proposed starting a nonprofit sanctuary. The community rallied around the idea and she opened Island Haven.
Duke and her crew care for approximately 40 animals, including goats; horses; pigs; chickens; turkeys; and llamas — all of which now have life-long care at the sanctuary. A majority of the animals, she explained, were owner surrenders, meaning that people voluntarily gave up their animals after realizing they could not sufficiently take care of them. To learn more about Island Animal Haven Sanctuary, visit www.islandhaven.org/.
Still, Duke and fellow animal control advocates have said they would like the Sheriff’s Office to send a deputy to an animal control training course. The annual class given by the Washington Animal Control totals 80 hours and costs $400 per officer.
Duke explained she recommends anyone witnessing animal abuse or neglect to call the sheriff. Unfortunately, however, she added, without proper training, deputies don’t always know what to look for.
During animal abuse investigations, Krebs said, deputies often take veterinarians along with them to serve as expert witnesses. Veterinarians, Krebs continued, are more valuable in court than a deputy, no matter how many hours of animal control training a deputy may have had.
The issue that Duke and others advocating for an animal control officer have seen, however, is that local veterinarians do not always want to become involved in a court case or be perceived as tattling on their neighbors.
About five years ago, islanders and deputies witnessed a horse they believed to be emaciated and in poor health, Duke explained. Deputies photographed the horse and brought the pictures to a veterinarian who did not specialize in large animals. With only the photos to examine, the vet told the officers there did not appear to be anything wrong with the equine. Without an expert witness, Duke said, there was no case. No charges were filed and the horse remained with its owner.
For those who worry an ACO would start rounding up people’s pets, Duke noted, animal control does not always confiscate animals.
“A lot of times people just don’t know how to take care of it correctly and animal control can educate [the owner],” Duke said.
In those situations, a trained officer can teach pet owners proper care. Animal control officers also have the authority to continue assessing a situation to ensure there is an improvement and that necessary veterinary appointments are being made.
Krebs said he is not opposed to training a deputy as an animal control officer, however, with limited staff and financial resources, it is difficult to lose an officer for weeks at a time. Krebs added that he would rather focus on issues the department deals with on a regular basis, like domestic violence.
When asked if he saw a connection between domestic violence and animal abuse, Krebs responded yes and no.
“Someone willing to beat up their wife and kids will likely have no problem beating up their dog, however, I have also seen people who care more about their dog than their spouse,” Krebs said.
Regardless of whether there is a domestic abuse link, animal advocates Allison Lance and Jan Murphy both noted that poor animal husbandry affects more than the neglected animals — human health is also affected. For example, feces from large quantities of animals kept in a small area with poor drainage can contaminate drinking water.
San Juan County Health and Community Services Environmental Health Manager Kyle Dodd explained that while his department would normally refer an animal welfare case to the sheriff department, it would take into consideration the effects the situation may be having on humans and the environment. According to Dodd, the health department sometimes partners with other agencies, like the San Juan Islands Conservation District or the Washington Department of Ecology, to address health and environmental concerns.
“Ecology [staff has] actually called us in one situation, because they had been testing the water near an aquafarm,” Dodd said. The tests, he explained, had come back showing higher pathogens than were noted in previous tests. The health department contacted the conservation district and the three agencies worked together to find the cause.
Dodd explained that there were large animals that were kept in an area that was too small and they had escaped through a dilapidated fence and were accessing a nearby creek. The landowner agreed to repair the fence, move the animals to a larger field and work with the conservation district to clean up the previous containment area that was contaminated by animal excrement, Dodd said.
Krebs noted that if someone knows of an animal welfare situation, they should call and file a report with his office.
The report can be anonymous, however, Krebs explained having a name on the report makes a stronger case in court. He added that the officers do not reveal sources’ names to suspects.
“If you see something, say something. Don’t put it on Facebook, don’t Snapchat about it, don’t Tweet about it — call us,” Krebs said. “No matter what the crime. If we don’t get a report, we can’t do anything.”