'The job that nobody talks about'

Health department cuts would decrease city's animal services

  • If Shelomoth Solomon, above, and a fellow driver who picks up animal carcasses lose their jobs, their duties would be absorbed by animal control workers who deal with live animals. That scenario has raised fears of disease and infection transmission.
If Shelomoth Solomon, above, and a fellow driver who picks up… (Baltimore Sun photo by Christopher…)
May 15, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Within the span of a day, Kenny Tarrant can work as everything from detective to grief counselor to undertaker.

"I do it all," said Tarrant, one of two Baltimore health department workers responsible for collecting animal carcasses from streets and homes, as he walked around downtown on a recent afternoon carrying tongs and a trash bag. He was on the lookout for a dog reportedly floating in the harbor and a duck who met its end at the boat dock of Canton.

"I do the job that nobody else wants to do," he said "This is the job that nobody talks about."

It's also a job that is in jeopardy. A proposed $1.1 million trim to the department's $23.8 million budget would, among other things, eliminate five positions in the animal control division, including Tarrant's, and four at the city's animal shelter. Health officials are seeking $300,000 more to keep those jobs.

While a $50 million package of new revenue, which includes a slew of controversial taxes, could preserve some city services that are in jeopardy, animal control positions might still fall low on the priority list when compared to police and firefighters, one Baltimore City Council member said.

Councilman Robert W. Curran, who during the past year has begun allowing stray cats to sleep in his house, said he will vote for the mayor's tax package, in part to save animal control services.

"Animal services is part of public safety," Curran said. "We cannot afford to have animal services lose those two driver positions. I'm not going to allow 5,000 carcasses to stay on the street."

If Tarrant and fellow driver Shelomoth Solomon lose their jobs, the city's current 13 animal control officers would collect dead animals along with the live ones they capture or rescue. That raises the risk that animals could remain on city streets longer, Tarrant said, and living animals could become infected with disease.

"My No. 1 concern is having live and dead animals on the same truck," Tarrant said. "That could spread all kinds of diseases. The city can't take that risk."

Contamination threat

City health department spokesman Brian Schleter acknowledged that the extra duties would mean animal control officers would not be able to respond to calls as quickly as they do now. It would also mean less time for them to issue citations; health department officials say the city could lose up to $500,000 in revenue because of the reduction.

The department also recognizes public health concerns of combining live and dead animals, Schleter said, adding that the animal control bureau will continue removing carcasses as quickly as possible.

According to National Animal Control Association guidelines, "animal control agencies should avoid transporting living animals with dead animals."

"Disease contamination is of primary concern," the guidelines say.

Dr. John Fioramonti of Towson Veterinary Hospital said that the city's animal control would have to be cautious about life-threatening and highly communicable viruses such as parvovirus and kennel cough — which are primarily found in dogs — spreading to live animals. A dead animal could carry the infections for 24 hours after they die, he said.

"Then they're a further burden to the shelter to treat them before they can be adopted, and that could cost more money," he said.

Since March 2009, animal control officers have picked up more than 4,000 live animals, according to the health department. In the same period, the department's two drivers have picked up more than 1,700 carcasses.

But it's more than just about transporting animals to their final resting place — an incinerator — that defines his job, Tarrant said.

Avoiding euthanasia

For six years, the towering but gentle man who hails from New York City has helped hundreds of Baltimore senior citizens grieve by listening to hours of stories about their departed pets before he removes them from their home. He has become an adopted neighbor to Edmondson Village residents, who've joined forces to help him catch a gang of dogs, named the "Treacherous 3," he has been chasing for at least three years.

Not to mention the number of people he said he's protected by picking up dead deer that some families want to use for food.

"A lot of people think this job is beneath them," Tarrant said, lifting the duck into a trash bag. "But I help people."

Tarrant's colleague, Solomon, said it was a "little unfair" that the driver positions were the only filled positions proposed for elimination. "We don't write citations, but that doesn't make us irrelevant," he said. "We see the effects of how people are taking care of their animals. We see the end result."

The Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, the nonprofit that provides adoption and shelter for the live animals the city collects, could also suffer because of budget cuts. The proposed elimination of a $120,000 grant could mean the loss of four positions at the Stockholm Street facility.

"We don't want to euthanize more animals, but we might have to be selective in the animals we take in the shelter," said shelter executive director Jennifer Mead. "To cut us would put us back where we used to be, and we can't accept that."

Mead also called the idea of animal control officers being responsible for picking up and transporting both live and dead animals "scary."

She said 90 percent of the animals the shelters take in, including those from animal control officers, are not vaccinated. The shelter euthanizes animals found to be infected with communicable diseases, Mead said.

These are all things that Tarrant said he hopes City Council members will take into consideration as they debate the fate of the health department's budget.

"I know everyone's fighting for police and fire," he said, as he prepared to retrieve a dead cat from a high school bleacher. "But animals are important, too."

egreen@baltsun.com

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