Detroit shelter dramatically reduces kill rate

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city's long-troubled animal control operation has its third new leader in three years as it grapples with overcrowding and outdated facilities.

The city's health department tapped Pittsburgh native Charles Brown in August to head Detroit's Animal Care and Control following a national search.

Volunteer Kimberly Harui plays with one of the strays in an outdoor pen area.

He steps in amid challenges with capacity, staffing and an aging facility that doesn't meet its needs, says Kristina Rinaldi, executive director of the nonprofit Detroit Dog Rescue, which acts as a transfer and community partner for Detroit's animal control and takes on most of the office's high-risk cases.

"It's sad when you go in there and the dogs are lined up in hallways because there's no more space for them," she said. "I know that the live release team is trying everything that they can to get these dogs out, but that's not an easy task."

The Animal Care and Control office relocated to a former humane society building on Chrysler Drive near the city's North End neighborhood two years ago, on the heels of calls for its closure and criticism over unsanitary conditions, unreasonable fees and a high kill rate.

In an interview with The Detroit News, Brown said about 40 animals a month are exiting the facility and being placed with rescue groups and other transfer partners. In the past year, the Michigan Humane Society has accepted 335 animals from Detroit.

The average stay for a dog in the center is 28 days, said Brown, who hopes to reduce that number by half.

"I definitely think that we're in the same boat as just about any big municipal shelter in the country. We're definitely always full," Brown said. "The key is: How long does the animal stay with us? Obviously, the faster we can move an animal through our system in a positive way, the more that cage space doesn't become an issue."

In his initial weeks, Brown said he's focusing on targeting city neighborhoods by ZIP code to identify "hot spots" for strays and dogfighting. Along with the effort, he said, will be an educational campaign for pet owners on city ordinances, licensing and vaccinations. Enforcement will follow.  

"I'm working, as we speak, on standardizing and stabilizing the operations at animal control and then dialing in on areas we need to get better at," he said. 

In the last two years, Detroit animal control has attended events hosted by Grand Rapids-based Bissell Pet Foundation to identify new transfer partners and find homes for some of its animals, said Cathy Bissell, the group's founder.

"I know that space is always an issue, and they have talked about 'We still need more space,'" Bissell said. "People are calling us with issues of overcrowding like I've never seen before. Everybody needs more space."

Detroit's Health Department assumed oversight of animal control services in fall 2015. Since then, the office's budget has nearly doubled from about $1.2 million to $2.3 million, and it's boosted hiring, dog bite prevention and volunteer programming. 

Detroit also has made strides in reducing its kill rate from 74 percent in 2015 to about 35 percent last year, according to annual shelter reports submitted to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

In 2017, the center took in 3,662 dogs and 448 cats. Of those,1,297 shelter dogs were ultimately euthanized as well as 107 other dogs surrendered by owners, and 13 cats were euthanized. Other animals that came into the center were returned to owners, adopted out or transferred to new shelters, state records say. 

Brown said roughly 70 percent of the animals that enter Detroit's animal control now are being released alive. Euthanasia rates are a good barometer for shelters, he said, but other factors must be considered.

"If there's a hyper-focus on 'I want to get to 80 percent out alive or 90 percent out alive and I don't care how I do it' then the issue becomes dangerous animals getting put on the street and bad adoptions," he said. "All over the country, there are stories of dog attacks. It's our job not to contribute to that."

Joneigh Khaldun, who heads the city's health department, said the office has added about a dozen staffers since January, a couple of fleet vehicles and bumped up operations to seven days per week.

It also launched an adoption program in the spring and a new foster program. Through June, the city has found new homes for 167 dogs, according to city data. 

But Rinaldi said the building isn't suitable for Detroit long-term. She also raised an issue over the center having just one veterinarian on site. For an animal control Detroit's size, it's "inadequate," she contends.

"I don't think they realized how dilapidated this building was when they moved into it. It's close to 100 years old," said Rinaldi, who has already met with Brown and is hoping for "incredible changes."

"Doing a capital campaign and trying to find a new place may take years," she said, but it's an idea "that needs to be put on the table."

Detroit Dog Rescue operates the only no-kill shelter in the city and facilitates care for dogs that have experienced severe trauma since the city is not equipped to do so, Rinaldi said. 

"I'd love to see a city of Detroit initiative to get a new building and fund this animal control that's working against all odds," Rinaldi said. 

Khaldun said the office hopes to allocate capital funds toward expanding the center's kennel space and its staff training. The building currently has a capacity of 225 dog kennels and 30 cat cages, according to state records.

A state inspection of the building in September 2017 uncovered missing baseboards and damaged kennels, clutter and food storage issues. 

Under Brown's leadership, Khaldun said the office will assess opportunities for expansion, restructuring and improving its partnerships with animal service providers. 

Brown agreed that the center is outdated, but he is hopeful that renovations will help meet the city's needs.  The office, he added, relies on partnerships with other vets for spay and neutering services and some of its emergency animal care.

"It's an old building, no question about it," he said. "We face some challenges, but I do think with some good thought and good actions, that the building itself would be able to meet our needs."

On the enforcement side, Khaldun noted all animal control officers are now deputized and trained to issue tickets. The officers, she said, have more than doubled the number of citations issued in the first half of 2018 over last year.

The department issued 70 citations from January through June, compared with 34 tickets issued from January to June of last year.

Brown replaces Kelly McLaughlin, who stepped in as interim director after former director Melissa Miller left the post. Miller, who worked for the Humane Society of the United States, had been appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan in December 2015.

Brown got his start as a kennel worker and has more than 20 years of animal welfare experience. 

Most recently, he was employed at the Humane Society of Carroll County in Maryland and held past positions in Terre Haute, Indiana, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. In Detroit, he'll earn $90,000 annually, officials said. 

In Carroll County, Brown improved the humane society's live release rate of 43 percent to 94 percent within his first year, said Michelle Fidler, director of animal care for the shelter that takes in an average of 4,700 animals per year.

"He didn't take any time to get us to the higher live release rate," she said. "It was kind of 'We're going to do it, and we're going to do it right now.'"

Fred Strohm, operations manager for the Terre Haute Humane Society, added Brown coordinated care for dozens of roosters that came into the facility from a busted cockfighting ring during his tenure there. He also recognized Brown for large-scale efforts to get cats out of shelters and into dozens of pet stores for adoption. 

"He buckled down. He got the job done," Strohm said. "He's going to do what needs to be done to help the animals get new homes."