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Detroit creates new animal control division to crack down on irresponsible owners

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city is creating a new animal control division that will deploy inspectors by district to respond better to dangerous dogs and crack down on irresponsible owners.

The overhaul for Detroit Animal Care and Control is the latest effort to turn around the department long plagued with inadequate staffing and facilities and revolving leadership.

Under the new structure, the city's General Service Department will assemble a team of seven inspectors — one in each of Detroit's council districts — by the end of the year to attend community meetings, speak at schools and provide a neighborhood point of contact for residents dealing with loose dogs and bites.

Terrence Floyd, with his pet Chihuahua, said his east-side neighborhood has been terrorized for months by a Rottweiler and pit bull.

The city's animal care duties will remain under the Detroit Health Department and its new director, Mark Kumpf, who will oversee sheltering, care and vaccinations and licensing and adoptions. The two departments will coordinate when needed, Denise Fair, the city's chief public health officer, told The Detroit News. 

RELATED REPORT: New Detroit animal control director outlines progress, plans

"For so long, we have been challenged and we have not put enough resources into animal care and control. But it's a new day," said Fair, who recently stepped in to lead the health office as the newest of about a dozen directors in the last 15 years. 

"I want senior citizens and young children and all Detroit residents to have confidence in animal care and control," she said. 

Fair joined with Kumpf and other city leaders to share details with The News on the  sweeping changes in the department's structure as well as plans to upgrade facilities, expand hours and staff and the launch of a new hotline and awareness campaign for residents.

For Terrance Floyd, improvements couldn't come soon enough. His east-side neighborhood has been terrorized for months by a full-grown Rottweiler and pit bull.

Floyd said calls for help since August often resulted in a week-long wait. Finally last month, he said, an animal control officer told Floyd the department had been trying to capture the dogs for nearly eight months.

"It's a very bad epidemic. People are getting dogs and raising them and just letting them roam free and not worrying about the safety of others. It's sad that it's come to this," said Floyd, who once tossed a rock at the dogs as they chased a neighbor down his block.

Another time, he said, he was forced to wait them out as they roamed near his car, preventing him from getting his 5-year-old son to school.

"If they (animal control) have someone on the ground, they can follow up in this area," he said. "I do understand, it's hard to get to every kind of call. We don't want to keep calling, but at least touch bases so we won't be stuck in the dark."

In recent weeks, the health office's (313) 922-DOGS hotline went live as a means of reporting potentially dangerous, loose or barking dogs, and bites, said Lori Sowle, assistant animal control director. That number will soon be displayed on billboards in city neighborhoods and advertised through a broader social media campaign to boost owner responsibility, licensing and adoptions.

"The more interaction we have with the community and the more facts we get out there, the better, for all of us," Sowle said. "With recent events over last year or so, it's our duty to make this work. We intend to do that."

A renewed call in Detroit for stronger laws and enforcement for owners of vicious animals was fueled by a deadly attack this summer in southwest Detroit that claimed the life of 9-year-old Emma Hernandez. The girl was mauled in August by three pit bulls while riding her bicycle. 

Terrance Floyd said responses to calls to animal control for help with dogs like this one he says runs free in his area can take days.

The animal control office, at the time, had been without leadership after former director, Charles Brown, resigned in the spring. Kumpf was selected following a national search and in September, became its fourth new director in as many years. 

In his first interview since taking over, Kumpf told The News he's focused on making a difference in Detroit for its residents and animals. 

It's been a rocky start for Kumpf, who immediately faced backlash from some animal welfare groups over his past record and ultimate firing from his past job in Montgomery County, Ohio.

"I'm happy to talk to folks in a constructive manner in things that move us forward," he said. "If the discussion is simply about 'we don't like you' or 'we don't like your past,' that's not moving forward and not helping the animals here in Detroit."

Theresa Sumpter, director of the Detroit Pit Crew Dog Rescue, helped organize protests targeting Kumpf and has been critical of his hiring. Since he's taken over, she said, issues residents face haven't subsided. 

"The Detroit Animal Care and Control still lacks proper leadership to really make a difference in the community and do what needs to be done," she said. 

Sumpter said she's heard a lot of promises before to fix the department that haven't materialized. But the administration's plans to add more people on the ground and rebuild the shelter are important steps toward meaningful change, she said. 

Detroit Chief Public Health Officer Denise Fair

"If that's on their agenda and that actually gets done, that will impress me," Sumpter said. "Our ultimate goal is to try to help the animals, not hurt them."

The health department's goals build on work done over the last two years to begin address its image and longstanding issues.

Last month, 13 new animal control officers were sworn in in what the city believes was the most ever at one time in its history. By the end of the year, he said, there will be 23 control officers and seven investigators, officials said. 

"We're seeing more animals adopted, more folks in the field, handling more calls coming in," Kumpf said. "The transformation, it's across the board."

Kristina Rinaldi, executive director of Detroit Dog Rescue, said she's pleased with the administration's strategy to manage the volume and types of animals, calls and complaints that Detroit's dealing with.

"The problem has been finding someone to head that ship," she said. "I do think we have the right team. I do see a commitment and a pattern."

The biggest challenge for the animal control operation, Kumpf said, is facilities that aren't meeting the city's needs. 

The operation relocated several years ago to a former humane society building on Chrysler Drive in the city's north end amid criticism of its previous location on Jefferson. Critics cited unsanitary conditions, unreasonable fees and a high kill rate. 

The health office declined The News' request to tour the animal shelter.

"The shelter really has been challenged with trying to shoehorn two operations into an outdated building that's in need of renovation," he said. 

To address the problem, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has allocated $3 million from the city's capital funding toward the construction of a new animal center, said Brad Dick, the city's group executive of infrastructure. 

The project is expected to get underway in the spring and cover a complete rebuild of the existing facility to house animals. A separate center also will be constructed in the space behind the building, with administrative and surgical offices and a welcome center. The work should be completed next fall, Dick added. 

Fair said the department also will be instituting a new "score card" to keep a weekly tally on dog bites, tickets and licenses issued and intake and live release rates. 

"It's important to look at dog bites and see 'are we doing better,'" she said. "For public health, all decisions have to be data driven."

Dog bites in the city were down in 2018 over the prior year, dropping to 460 total bites from 474 in 2017, according to figures released this fall Detroit's Health Department.

This year, there have been 301 bites reported through October, the health office said. 

In 2018, Detroit Animal Care and Control more than doubled the number of tickets given out, rising to 184 tickets issued from 89 tickets the year prior. 

The department had logged 161 tickets through June. From July to Nov. 10, they issued another 342 tickets, officials said. 

"In the past, follow up on investigations and incidents, that was something that was kind of lacking because all we could do is respond," Sowle noted. "Now we are being proactive in trying to determine root causes and those kinds of things."

Another area of focus, Kumpf said, will be educating Detroit residents about licensing.

Detroit animal control officer Markas Cunningham holds a shelter dog. “We’re seeing more animals adopted, more folks in the field, handling more calls coming in,” said new director Mark Kumpf.

Animal control estimates that there are 151,166 dogs in the city of about 673,000 residents, based on the American Veterinary Medical Association's pet ownership counter.

License sales, Kumpf said, have consistently been less than 2% annually since at least 2016, according to data provided from the department. The national average, he said, is about 10-12%.

The health department is working with Detroit's administration and City Council to strengthen laws for dangerous animals. Proposed ordinance changes are expected to come back before council in January, Kumpf said.  

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones spearheaded an overhaul of the city's animal control law after mauling that killed 4-year-old Xavier Strickland in 2015. A tougher set of regulations for dog owners were later enacted in spring 2017.

The proposed amendments cover potentially dangerous and nuisance dogs, fence height rules and enclosure inspections and tougher penalties for violators. Jones could not be reached for comment.

Rinaldi said overhauling the department is a massive task. She's hopeful that the plans of the new leadership will yield positive results. 

"Now we have a track record here, now we know all of the problems, and now the administration is acquiring talent who can fix it," she said. 

In Ryan Rios’ northwest Detroit neighborhood, residents out walking for exercise often carry large sticks. Not out of fear of crime, he said, but for protection from stray and unleashed dogs.

“It creates an unsafe environment where people don’t want to go outside,” said Rios, 35, who lives in the Warrendale area.

People have lost faith in Detroit’s animal control and come to expect that if they call for help, it won’t come. The city’s plan to educate and connect more with the community would be a welcome change, he said.

 “That’s confidence-instilling,” said Rios. “A timely response would go a long way.”