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Detroit animal control eyes growth amid overhaul

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city’s long-troubled animal control operation is settling in at its new facility one year into an overhaul with plans to double its staff, expand hours and find more animals permanent homes — “just the tip of the iceberg,” says one rescue group working with the city.

Progress at Detroit’s Animal Care and Control follows years of criticism over unsanitary conditions, poor policy and kill rate.

Detroit’s Health Department assumed oversight of the services last fall, shaking up leadership and practices amid calls for its closure.

This month, the office shuttered its Jefferson facility and moved to the former Michigan Humane Society building on Chrysler Drive. The space was gifted to the city by the Humane Society, which opened an animal care campus in March.

The new digs, stepped up training, dog bite prevention and volunteer programming are among the improvements. In December, the office announced the appointment of director Melissa Miller.

“I really believe if you want something to change, you have to participate in solutions,” Miller said. “Just focusing on how far we’ve come helps overcome the negativity.” .”

The department also has embarked on a hiring blitz. Miller said Detroit Animal Care and Control is working to hire three animal control officers and six to eight animal care technicians. It’s also seeking an assistant director and live release coordinator.

The office operates with nine animal control officers, three supervisors and one field investigator. Officials hope to have the new staff trained by years’ end and expand hours next year. Positions are listed on the city’s website.

Its fiscal year budget increased from $1.2 million last year to $2.2 million in the current fiscal year, Miller said.

Animal control is seeing about 28 percent fewer dog bites and releasing three times more animals, officials said.

Staff attributes the dog bite decline to the promotion of low-cost spay and neuter resources and programs educating residents about safe animal confinement.

Meanwhile, about 62 percent of the dogs coming in are being released to foster groups or owners. That’s more than triple last year’s rate of about 20 percent, Miller said. About 90 percent of cats are leaving with rescue partners. The office does not offer public adoptions.

The increases in fostering are tied to the office’s growing partnership with rescue and foster groups. Animal control had ended sterilization services and public adoptions around 2008. After that, animals did not leave the facility unless owners claimed them, she said.

Detroit Dog Rescue is one of several groups that has helped relocate dogs from the center. The nonprofit rescue, which operates the city’s first no-kill shelter, has taken about 100 dogs in the last year.

DDR is working with Miller on agreements that would help find more animals homes, said Kristina Rinaldi, the group’s executive director.

“Every time I go in there, I do see really great things happening,” Rinaldi said. “Is there room for improvement? Of course. There’s always room everywhere. But I really believe that what you have seen so far from animal control is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Last year, residents and animal advocates raised alarm about conditions and practices at the animal control office. The conditions sparked protests at the old Jefferson facility, lawsuits and an online petition to shut down the office.

Detroit attorney Tamara French was among those critical of the practices and helped spearhead the campaign to close the office. Miller’s leadership, she said, has been positive.

“I’m happy,” she said. “I don’t think there was ever much of a question of whether she would do good by the dogs or the people.”