Embattled Detroit Animal Control gets new director

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
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Detroit — The city’s Animal Control office is getting new leadership on Monday, a change that comes amid a federal lawsuit over its practices and an impassioned plea from protesters to have it shuttered.

Detroit native Melissa Miller has been appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan to take over for longtime director Harry Ward. She will earn $80,000 a year as head of the department that has faced scrutiny over its kill rate and claims of unsanitary conditions, unreasonable policies and exorbitant fees.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, Detroit’s new executive director of the Department of Health and Wellness Promotion, credited Ward for his service, but said the “moment was right” to make a change.

Protesters have been pleading with the Duggan administration for months to terminate Ward and make changes within the department.

Those opposing the facility have protested daily for weeks. El-Sayed told The Detroit News on Friday the decision to hire Miller was made a month ago and not tied to the outrage.

Ward, who has overseen the office for about eight years, will be reassigned within the city’s Police Department, El-Sayed said. He could not be reached for comment.

Miller, a Detroit native, is well-acquainted with the department’s challenges, he said. She has worked for the Humane Society of the United States and is experienced in sheltering at-risk animals.

“We’ve had some challenges at animal control,” he said. “Her skill set will be ideal for us and it’s something we need right now.”

In November, a group of Detroiters sued the city, claiming animal control officers seized dogs and imprisoned the animals in filthy conditions, and that some dogs died after owners were unable to pay fines and fees.

In a resume provided by the city, Miller said she is “making my passion for emergency animal response and sheltering my profession.”

“Through my work in animal welfare and advocacy over the last 10 years, I have gained an immeasurable experience networking, developing relationships with public and private entities, and implementing humane sheltering standards and best practices,” she wrote.

Since El-Sayed took over in August, the department has begun engaging adoption groups to help get animals into permanent homes more quickly. So far, it has turned over more than 50 dogs to rescue groups.

The department has added a credit card payment option for fees and .

“I understand why citizens are upset, I do. That’s the reason that the mayor has made changes. But changes take time,” he said. “(Residents) don’t appreciate that immediate change isn’t lasting change. We are trying to build long-lasting change.”

News of the leadership shift excited some rescue activists.

“I think it’s just going to be a lot easier now having a director that’s a friend of rescue,” Kristina Rinaldi, executive director at Detroit Dog Rescue, which has welcomed a number of dogs from DAC.

She also noted that large-scale changes are “not going to happen overnight” but hoped Miller would pursue collaborations. “It’s going to take a lot of rescues and a lot of animal welfare advisers working together to fix some of these problems,” Rinaldi said.

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.

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