Stray dogs roam free in county since Humane Society closed

Navajo County plans to start an animal control division in health district

Photo by Jeff Pope
Barbara Lucero found these two shaggy dogs hiding under an abandoned car in the former city and railroad dump near her house. Since Lucero lives in Navajo County, Winslow1s Animal Shelter could not pick up the strays and the county does not have an animal control program yet.

Photo by Jeff Pope Barbara Lucero found these two shaggy dogs hiding under an abandoned car in the former city and railroad dump near her house. Since Lucero lives in Navajo County, Winslow1s Animal Shelter could not pick up the strays and the county does not have an animal control program yet.

Living next to a former city and railroad company dumpsite, county resident Barbara Lucero has found discarded dining car dishes, medical bottles and other bits of Winslow's history.

On June 7, she found two shaggy dogs seeking refuge from the 90-plus degree heat under a burgundy Cutlass Supreme resting on blocks. Since neither wore a collar or tags, Lucero believed they had no home and definitely no food or water. She said she believed one of the dogs was in heat and the other would growl menacingly if anyone came too close.

Lucero and her friends have no problem finding hidden treasures among the abandoned vehicles, electronics and glass bottles in the dump on Old Clear Creek Road. However, finding help for the strays was much more difficult.

Lucero called Winslow's Animal Shelter. Since she lived outside city limits, she was told to call the Navajo County Sheriff's Office. She said she was told they couldn't help her and she should try the Board of Supervisors, who in turn told her to call the Public Health Services District. She left a message.

"Everyone said they couldn't do anything because I live in the county," Lucero said. "Why can't my tax dollars do anything?"

Lucero said she has also found gunnysacks full of kittens, puppies and even a tortoise left among the trash. Stray and abandoned animals have been a problem for nearby county residents since the Winslow Humane Society closed in October 2003.

The city took over shelter operations, but unlike the Humane Society does not contract with the county to pick up strays outside city limits.

Until 1993, the Navajo County Sheriff's Office could pick up the animals and take them to a shelter. However, due to health reasons, animals could no longer be transported in a vehicle intended to hold humans.

"Our biggest problem is we can't transport dogs and people in the same vehicle and unless the dog is contained and we can find the owners to cite, then the dog is going to run astray," Comdr. Bernard Huser said. "If somebody gets bit, we will do everything in our power to catch the dog to get it tested for rabiesS for health reasons."

Navajo County has never had officers dedicated to animal control. But county officials said they know strays are a problem and have included the hiring of two animal control officers in the 2005-06 budget.

In years past, the county would budget a little money to the Sheriff's Office for animal control, but District III Supervisor J.R. DeSpain said the service was inefficient.

"The sheriff's office is interested in catching bad guys they're not worrying about the animals that get abandoned or abused or even turned into proper sources," he said.

DeSpain said the Board of Supervisors won't wait until a serious health problem occurs because of stray animals.

"We had some real push for officers in the past from two areas," he said. "One is Winslow and the other is east of Snowflake where they've had some real problems with animals running wild."

Under the proposed plan, the sheriff's dispatcher will still handle calls and relay the messages to two animal control officers. One would be stationed in Holbrook; the other based out of Show Low. The officers would actually work under the Public Health Services District.

Wade Kartchner, recently hired as the director of the district, said hiring officers, purchasing equipment and developing the office could take a few months. The purpose of the new division, he said, is to treat stray animals as a health risk.

"If city shelters signed IGAs (intergovernmental agreements) with the county then the city shelters could take the strays too, but that would be up to the officers to decide policies," he said.

DeSpain said the new services would cost county taxpayers. The tax rate increase was not available as of Monday, but DeSpain said it would address other issues besides animal control in the Public Health Services District.

"I think it's a necessary evil. I think people in Navajo County deserve a good system that not only will work for them but I think they want it. I think they'll be glad to pay for it," DeSpain said. "We want to be a real service for the county, not a burden for the county taxpayers."

Since 2003, the White Mountain Humane Society (WMHS) has been the only one in Navajo County. It is also the sole service provider for Apache County. But since the shelter is in Lakeside, the shelter employees won't make the 90-mile trip to Winslow unless the animal is contained.

"You would need to call the sheriff's department and we would go pick up those animals if they were contained, but we cannot pick them unless they are contained," WMHS spokesperson Christy Lerch said. "We do have traps and we can set traps if we need to. But we can't do anything without the sheriff's department."

Director Deborah Miller said the WMHS picks up an average of 25-30 dogs per month through the sheriff's office dispatch.

That's about the same that Winslow's Humane Society used to receive from Navajo County as well. Information provided by the shelter's former director, Ellie Meritt, shows 400 dogs and 83 cats handled in 2002 ‹ the last full year of the Winslow Humane Society. They also picked up 61 dogs and cats in Apache and Coconino Counties on calls from the Department of Public Safety.

Since it's closure, Meritt has tried to reopen a Humane Society in the county outside Winslow proper.

"People would give us enough land to do it, but then we would have to put money into drilling wells and then we would have to have a special septic system," she said. "It got to the point where even with grants, we could not come up with enough."

The Board of Directors decided last month to dissolve the Winslow Humane Society for a lack of money, she said.

Supervisor DeSpain said he would like to hear from county residents on this issue. He gave 928-241-0399 as the best number to reach him.

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