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Friends of Animals numbers not adding up

Farmdog is a stray that occasionally visits the Friends of Animals. She likes to picks up her toy and carry it around when she feels anxious. She was excited to see people and begged for attention Tuesday, May 22. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal1 / 2
This cat hid in the corner of one of the cat rooms at the Friends of Animals and peered fearfully through the cut out. The cat is one of many waiting for a home at the shelter. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal2 / 2

After being in stray-animal limbo since late April, the city of Cloquet now has a plan — at least for the next three months.

During the May 15 Cloquet City Council meeting, all six councilors unanimously approved an agreement with Animal Allies Humane Society in Duluth to take any stray animals picked up by police in the city. City officials had previously signed an agreement with Animal Allies to take any dangerous animals after the Cloquet-based Friends of Animals (FOA) Humane Society had declined one in March.

The changes follow a notice from the FOA in late March, giving 30 days notice that the long-time shelter and Humane Society would no longer provide an animal control officer (ACO) as part of its services to the city, along with a proposed new contract that kept the previous payment of $31,000 by the city plus additional fees if FOA received more than 120 stray animals in Cloquet city limits.

City officials balked at being charged more money for fewer services, and the city's contract with FOA ran out with no new agreement in place.

Thus began a period of stray-animal limbo, when the city still had an ordinance in place prohibiting stray animals, but no ACO to capture them and no contract with any animal shelter. At least one call to 911 resulted in Cloquet officers responding to a business but not picking up the animal, after explaining that their hands were tied because the city no longer had a contract with FOA.

The plan approved by the Cloquet City Council on May 15 proposes a 24-hour holding period at a city facility for strays, which hasn't been constructed yet, followed by transport to Animal Allies.

Under the terms of the contract, Animal Allies agreed to keep the animals for the mandated five-day hold at a cost of $25 a day for dogs and $20 for cats, as well as a charge of $90 for sterilization if required. They also required a $3,750 administrative fee to set up and administer the stray program.

"Once (the holding facility) is in place, the thought process is to post the picture and information of the animal on social media in an attempt to locate the owner before having to transport the animal to Duluth," Cloquet Police Department Patrol Commander Carey Ferrell told the Pine Journal.

Cloquet City Administrator Aaron Reeves told the council that Moose Lake has followed a similar procedure with its strays, and many are picked up — making transport to FOA unnecessary.

Still, the changes bring their own complications and delays.

Ferrell said officers are currently learning procedures at Animal Allies for animal intake. The police department is also working to equip a couple squad cars with the necessary equipment to transport animals — Animal Allies is located at 4006 Airport Rd., Duluth, about a half-hour drive from Cloquet — and looking into any training that might be required to handle and transport animals.

Ferrell said Cloquet residents should call 911 to report animal disturbances and or strays. Officers will respond to animal calls based on availability and priority of current or pending 911 calls for service.

Stray animals will likely be low on the list of priorities, Reeves noted, adding that the city will also purchase a pet microchip scanner so they can scan strays and contact pet owners directly. He also advocated eliminating the requirement for pet licenses, and requiring a microchip or ID tag instead.

A countywide issue?

Cloquet is not the only city or township in Carlton County trying to decide what to do with a new contract proposal from FOA.

Representatives from Cloquet, Moose Lake, Esko, Carlton, Wrenshall and Scanlon met at Cloquet City Hall the morning of May 17 in an attempt to brainstorm on the issue of stray animals.

Everyone expressed frustration with the proposed changes to the FOA contracts, including increased costs and no ACO.

The costs charged in previous contracts included the ACO salary as well as costs incurred while housing stray animals for the state-mandated five-day hold.

Several city and township representatives were confused as to why they would still pay a similar amount or more on the new contracts when there is no longer an ACO.

According to Mary Nelson, interim director at FOA, the full costs of impound animal care were not being covered by the money from the contracts as they should have been. Consequently shelter funds were taken to cover the shortage of the costs of the impound animals (strays). The contract between Cloquet and FOA was not based on any per-animal calculations.

"Cloquet, for example, was roughly 70 percent of the ACO services and calls. If you take just the full-time ACO salary of $25,000, plus nights and weekends on call, that would be about $19,800, which leaves $11,200 per year," Nelson said. "We took in 331 animals from Cloquet in 2017, which is $33 an animal — not a day, but per animal. We have been paying the bill to offer the service."

"If you take the two-year average of 245 strays, that is still only $45 per animal, not per day," she said. She said the breakdown per day per stray would be $9.

Nelson was not included in the Thursday morning meeting.

Several people said they believe FOA was overestimating both the cost of care per animal and how many strays came from their individual towns.

"What happens when an owner picks up their pet from FOA and they pay to get it out," Moose Lake City Administrator Tim Peterson asked. "if 50 percent of owners pick up their pets, wouldn't that mean only half the amount of strays then we are being charged for?"

For a more long-term solution, Reeves said he is going to contact area kennel owners to see if they are interested in housing strays for the city. Reeves had already asked local veterinary clinics if they would be willing to serve as impound for strays. They said they do not have room or keep animals overnight.

Several representatives asked what would happen to strays after the state-mandated five days at a local kennel.

It would be up to the kennel owners, Reeves said. The city is no longer responsible after the five-day hold is up.

"Our only true responsibility is dangerous animals," Reeves said.

Several town representatives said they were in the process of rescinding their stray and nuisance animal ordinances.

"I would like to know if there really is a stray issue," Reeves said. "Is it a problem or isn't it a problem?"

Another idea tossed around during the meeting was for the different municipalities and townships to share an ACO and a joint holding area for strays.

"We would need the $50,000 paid by the county to FOA in order to do this," Reeves said. "If the county does not give us their money, we can't do it."

The representatives also discussed pooling their money and paying FOA a lump sum to cover all of the towns strays.

"If we work together collectively, maybe they will work with us," Thomson Township Board member Terry Hill said. "We will not be held hostage by FOA."

Reeves asked Carlton County commissioners Dick Brenner and Marv Bodie what the county board's stand on the issue is.

They said the issue was new and had not been discussed during a board meeting. They did say that while a county levy idea had been presented, not all of the commissioners are on board. Some townships do not have contracts with FOA and take care of strays themselves.

"If push comes to shove, the county doesn't have any ordinances and they don't plan to put any ordinances on animals," Brenner said. "We are not going to be in the dog business."

Brenner said he thought a levy through the county could solve everyone's issues at the table.

Another option Reeves tossed out was for the city to build a small impound building with ten kennels to hold the strays for the required five days.

"I am pretty sure we're not going to be a no-kill shelter," Reeves said. "We can't afford to keep them past five days."

"It all comes down to people not taking care of their own animals," Bodie said.

Everyone — even Animal Allies, according to Reeves — agreed the ideal situation would be working out an agreement with FOA.

"I wish it was FOA. It makes the most sense, but if they are changing their mission ...," Reeves said.

Others questioned how FOA determined the numbers of strays for each town.

"FOA told us we have 10 times the amount of strays I think we have," Moose Lake's Peterson said. "I thought we had three; FOA said we had 30."

The group members agreed to do their homework first and talk to local kennels to see if anyone is interested in housing strays.

They will meet again June 21.