'We've become inundated'
Sheriff's office grapples with rise in animal control calls in outlying cities
March 24, 2014
Ann Wenthold, president of PAWS, talks Monday to Gypsy, a dog that was taken to the Greene County Animal Shelter in Jefferson on Feb. 23 by a sheriff’s deputy after it was found running loose in Grand Junction. Animal-control calls now make up 12 to 15 percent of all calls fielded by the Greene County Sheriff’s Office.
The passenger Friday morning in the back of Sheriff Steve Haupert's patrol truck needed to be transported to Story County, but not to stand trial for any crime.
The passenger was, in fact, dead, wrapped in a plastic garbage bag and needed for a post-mortem biopsy - but not to tie his DNA to any suspected cold case.
Haupert didn't even know if his passenger had a name.
"He probably did at some point," he said.
The passenger on this day wasn't a John Doe, either.
It was a dog.
Just a few days before, Haupert had appeared before the Greene County Board of Supervisors to bring awareness to his office's plight - that it's become overwhelmed by animal-control calls.
And, now, the Friday morning drive to Iowa State University's veterinary diagnostic lab to have a stray shepherd tested for rabies after it bit a woman in Rippey on March 12 seemed to just punctuate the whole issue.
The county's top cop has become, in essence, the county dog catcher.
"It's not the picture most people have of law enforcement," John Muir, chairman of the board of supervisors, confessed after learning of Haupert's menial task last Friday morning. "You hate to tell people we couldn't get to something because we were taking a dog to Ames."
But, for Haupert and his six deputies, this is the new reality.
"We've become somewhat inundated," Haupert explained during the drive to Iowa State.
Calls for animal control now make up 12 to 15 percent of all calls fielded by the Greene County Sheriff's Office, Haupert said.
Haupert has recommended to supervisors the hiring of an animal-control officer to serve the entire county.
"We just didn't have Dog 101 in the academy," he said. "There are some deputies and officers who don't deal well with dogs. They got in law enforcement for the rush of arrests and traffic stops."
Times have changed dramatically since Haupert joined the sheriff's office as a deputy in 1997.
"We were not allowed to put a dog or a cat in the vehicle," he recalled.
Now, he and his deputies are called regularly to round up dogs that are running loose.
Earlier this month, the sheriff's office even removed 127 ball pythons - a breed native to Africa - from a home on Q Avenue on the recommendation of a vet after the owner had been committed.
That particular breed of snake is typically docile, but there are inherent dangers working with animals.
"We have to be very delicate with how we proceed," Haupert said. "It's easier to get on Channel 8 by shooting a dog than by shooting a fellow human."
"We've been backed down by dogs," he added. "I'm really reluctant to shoot a dog when people are looking out the window."
Therein lies part of the problem.
Increasingly, the Greene County Sheriff's Office is working within the city limits of the six municipalities that no longer have police officers of their own.
"There are fewer of us to deal with it than when each town had an officer or two," Haupert said.
Combined, the cities of Grand Junction, Scranton, Churdan, Rippey, Paton and Dana make up 25.67 percent of Greene County's population, yet deputies were dispatched to one of those cities 41.8 percent of the time in 2013, according to Haupert's statistics.
That doesn't include routine patrols.
Those cities have 28E agreements in place to have the sheriff's office provide law-enforcement services at a cost.
Grand Junction, for example, was recently billed by Haupert's office in the amount of $3,490.49 for services rendered during February.
By comparison, Dana was billed $181.50.
Of those towns with 28E agreements, deputies most often head to Grand Junction - 45.6 percent of the time, according to Haupert.
"We need to be seen all over the county," Haupert said, "not just all the time in towns."
Historically, the sheriff's office dealt with animals only if they were harassing or maiming livestock in the country.
"It was always the given rule on the farm that if a stray dog was bothering your livestock, the dog probably didn't exist anymore," said Haupert, a former farmer himself.
Today's deputies are now dealing with dogs that bark at night or that chase after people on bikes.
Often, though, they're too busy doing traditional law-enforcement duties to respond quickly.
A dog once was nipping at a Grand Junction resident, but deputies couldn't respond because they were executing a search warrant at the time, Haupert said.
"If we're on a call for two hours," he said, "the dog isn't going to stand around waiting for us."
His deputies also haven't been trained to deal with animals.
He firmly believes the county needs a dedicated animal-control officer "who works well with animals."
"It's an ever-increasing dilemma for law enforcement," Haupert said. "What we used to do to control animals, we can't do anymore."
The dog from Rippey that was taken to Iowa State for rabies testing ultimately tested negative, Haupert said.
That dog had gone after a smaller dog, injuring the owner when she got between the two.
The dog was eventually found by deputies and euthanized by a vet in Jefferson before being taken to Iowa State as a precautionary measure.
"I'm sure this dog has never had shots," Haupert said on the drive to Ames.
It's believed the dog's owner had abandoned it after moving to Perry.
'Society is changing'
Haupert isn't sure if the animal-control issue is a result of his office being stretched too thin in the era of 28E agreements or else a symptom of a changing society.
Grand Junction has a dog-licensing law, he said, but only seven dogs are currently licensed.
"I don't know how to delicately say this," Haupert said, "but where we used to deal with 10 percent of the people, we're dealing with 40 to 50 percent of the people now. Our society is changing.
"Many of our calls are for people who have civil issues but don't have the money to hire a lawyer. They expect us to be the go-between."
Perhaps as a result, the eight-bed Greene County Jail has been at capacity for months, according to Haupert.
"We've been using every closet we've got," he said. "That's a disturbing trend, too. It's just been nonstop."
For the time being, Greene County at least needs a bigger animal shelter, according to Haupert, and one funded by every city in the county.
Currently, the county's only shelter is in Jefferson, located at the city sewer plant, and it resembles a sort of temporary shack.
It has capacity for just seven dogs, although there's been as many as nine.
"Jefferson's animal shelter is Jefferson's," Haupert said. "It's really not fair for them to have to shoulder the burden of taking care of an animal that came from another town."
"We know we're putting a burden on the city of Jefferson's facility," he added, "and it's becoming unfair."
The city of Jefferson funds the shelter, with the county kicking in a portion. But, the other cities don't pay anything, said Mike Palmer, city administrator in Jefferson.
The local volunteer group PAWS - People for Animal Welfare Society - cares for the animals at the shelter and also operates an adoption program.
A new animal shelter - one that would likely be located by the Jefferson airport - has been in the conceptual stage for about a year, Palmer said.
"We need to visit how it's going to be more equitable," Palmer said. "We probably need more people chipping in."
No plans have been drawn up, and a new animal shelter could cost anywhere from $600,000 to $1 million, according to Palmer.
The city is taking a wait-and-see approach in regards to funding any such project.
"It depends on the casino," Palmer said. "It could be a ways off without it."
Both a new animal shelter and an animal-control officer will have to be dealt with at some point, according to Supervisor Muir.
It's an issue that isn't going away, he said.
"We need to start looking at it from a countywide view," Muir said. "I commend Steve for bringing it to us.
"I don't think anybody goes into law enforcement to be a dog catcher."