Animal activists criticize agency Rescue organizations charge city director is not responding

'Steps you have to take'

Quicker action sought by protective groups

official shares goal

August 03, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The new director of Baltimore's Animal Shelter is getting a rough welcome from animal rescue groups in the city who say they are frustrated with the agency's response to animal cruelty complaints.

Last year, the City Council held a hearing on ways to improve the shelter's response to complaints. A study three years ago found animal cruelty complaints in Baltimore had remained open for as long as three years. Council members recommended improvements such as computerizing the animal shelter, noting problem pet owners and requiring more thorough pet licensing.

But groups such as the Maryland Animal Protection Coalition and Citizens for Animals say the city has not taken any of the steps. The city receives about 20 cruelty complaints a day, and rescue groups say they are receiving more calls because of the city's lax enforcement.

How many open cases the shelter has today is unclear. All cases have gotten an initial response and investigation, said Bob Anderson, the shelter director.

Rescue groups say they intend to document open cases and measure the promptness with which the city responds.

The number of complaints -- ranging from dogs chained on short leashes to animals left in the sun without food and water -- has risen since Anderson's arrival three months ago, said Colleen hTC Brown of the coalition. She accuses Anderson of being lax.

"He promised that he would make cruelty his top priority," said Brown, who served on the advisory panel that selected Anderson. "The calls come into us, because the community doesn't have any more channels."

Anderson, a former supervisor for Tri-County Animal Shelter in Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties, acknowledged that the city needs to improve the time it takes to respond to a complaint.

Animals photographed

State law requires the shelter to investigate within 24 hours, but Anderson said he would like the shelter to respond within eight hours.

Anderson recently authorized the agency's 13 animal-control officers to carry instant-picture cameras to document the conditions of animals that are the subjects of complaints.

But responding to a complaint might not include taking action, he said. Sometimes, state laws do not allow the city's animal enforcement officers to take the action rescue groups seek, Anderson said.

The fact that residents observe dogs in yards without food or water does not mean the animal has been mistreated, he said.

If someone is home, for example, animal control officers cannot cite them for neglect unless the dog is visibly ill, Anderson said.

Most cases end with pets being impounded and owners fined, Anderson said. "There are certain steps you have to take if you want to take the matter to court," he said. "We are trying to handle the cruelty cases within the law."

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, city health commissioner, and previous shelter directors have been repeated targets of animal rights groups' criticisms. But concerns over cruelty cases also have been raised by Deborah Levine, an attorney with the Maryland attorney general's office.

Levine, who rescues troubled animals in her spare time, complained to the city about pit bulls being starved and chained without water in a yard on Gilmor Street.

Levine, who handles civil cases for the state, said the city failed to respond to her complaint, a violation of state law.

"There is some specific stuff that they are supposed to do, and they are not doing it," Levine said.

Thousands of calls

Anderson said he could not recall if any action had been taken on the incident.

Under the new city protocol, the Health Department's Environmental Control Board will review cruelty complaints with the hope that it can resolve matters more quickly, Beilenson said.

"When you have thousands and thousands of calls, you're going have a very small percentage that are not handled correctly," Beilenson said. "I'm sure that's true."

Pub Date: 8/03/98

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