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Rescue groups say KC Pet Project’s animal control services keep dangerous dogs on streets

 A layered image partially shows a metal building with the sign "KC Campus for Animal Care, KC Pet Project." There is an image of two brown pit bulls in one corner. There are some strips of paper highlighting the words "...recommendation of the committee to reject all proposals" and "biting him multiple times leaving approximately 13 punctures or lacerations."
Photo Illustration: Carlos Moreno and Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
A recent pit bull attack in northeast Kansas City prompted more discussions on how KC Pet Project is doing with animal control duties.

Since KC Pet Project took over animal control from the city, citations have dropped precipitously, for everything from keeping dangerous dogs to having pets spayed and neutered.

For three hours on April 22, two pit bulls named Branch and Nia — a mother and daughter — menaced a Kansas City neighborhood.

The pair attacked three people, including a child on a bike who managed to kick the dogs and escape.

They sent a woman to the hospital with 20 bite wounds, several of them labeled very serious. “Each dog had a hold of one of her legs,” the animal control report said. “The victim required ten stitches on her left leg where the deepest bite was.”

They then forced a man to jump on top of a car to escape the attack after he was bitten 13 times, according to municipal court documents.

“I saw it happen,” said longtime neighbor Orvil Burnworth as he recounted the incident sitting on his porch on Denver Avenue in Northeast Kansas City. “I went in to get my gun. I was going to shoot them.”

Neighbors said Branch and Nia — both unspayed — roamed freely around the neighborhood.

It wasn’t until the next afternoon, 24 hours after the triple attack, that an animal service officer from KC Pet Project finally made contact with the owner and managed to quarantine the dogs.

The owner, Robert Allen, 40, now faces 10 charges in Kansas City Municipal Court including creating a public nuisance and failing to spay or neuter the two pit bulls.

The two dogs were “humanely euthanized due to the severity of the bites and attacks,” KC Pet Project said.

In December 2020, KC Pet Project, the longtime and much praised operator of Kansas City’s animal shelter, took over animal control enforcement from the city. A little more than two years later, animal rescue groups and some members of the Kansas City Council are questioning whether the city should have outsourced animal control.

“I’m nervous they’re leaving dangerous animals out there,” Northland veterinarian Larry Kovac told KCUR.

Kovac’s nervousness about KC Pet Project running animal control goes back to before the Kansas City Council voted to approve KC Pet Project’s proposal to wrest animal control from the city’s Neighborhood Services Department.

Kovac was part of a committee that reviewed KC Pet Project’s plan and unanimously rejected it.

“After a thorough review of the proposals…it is the recommendation of the committee to reject all proposals,” according to the committee’s memo to then-City Manager Troy Schulte.

Kovac was worried about exactly what ended up happening on April 22. “Our fear was they were going to leave biters in the home. They just weren’t prepared to take on animal control,” Kovac said.

 Three adults sit in front of computer monitors at a large U-shaped desk in a brightly lit office. One the wall are two large screens: one displays a Kansas City map and the other shows the status of incoming calls for service.
Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
KC Pet Project took over animal control from the city in December 2020. It gets 4,000 calls a year into its dispatch center.

Goldie Arnold, who runs the Northland Animal Welfare Society, was also on the committee that rejected KC Pet Project’s plan. “They should have never taken over,” she said.

Kansas City Councilman Brandon Ellington was one of two council members who opposed the KC Pet Project takeover.

“I feel like a soothsayer because two years ago I said it'd be problematic,” he said.

Ellington said he has heard from people in his east Kansas City district, which has always been the busiest for animal control, that KC Pet Project isn’t seizing dangerous animals and that strays roam everywhere.

KCUR reviewed thousands of tickets written for animal code violations, for the two years before KC Pet Project took over animal control and the two years after. KCUR also spoke with a dozen people involved in animal rescue in the metro about KC Pet Project and interviewed city officials who were in power at the time decisions were being made about the future of animal control in Kansas City. Some of those people asked to remain anonymous because they no longer work for the city.

A ‘kinder, gentler’ animal control

For as long as most can remember, the Animal Services Division in Kansas City focused on enforcement — either seizing pets or ticketing owners.

But a 2017 city audit suggested vigorous enforcement may not be the best approach.

“Supervisors said AHPS (Animal Health and Public Safety Division) tends to err on the side of what they consider is best for the animals, which is seizing the animal from the owner, rather than attempting to gain compliance through pet owner education,” according to the audit. “Animal care and control practices implemented in other municipalities have focused on achieving compliance of animal laws through education and connecting people with resources,” it went on to say.

The audit was critical of everything from how officers investigated cruelty cases to how response time was calculated. At the time, the director of neighborhood and housing services agreed almost entirely with the audit.

According to a former high-ranking official, the audit prompted city officials to think “pet owner education” was “a kinder, gentler way” to do animal control.

So the city put out a request for proposal (RFP) to see what privatizing animal control could look like. It got two proposals, one from Spay Neuter KC and one from KC Pet Project. Spay Neuter wanted to work jointly with animal control. KC Pet Project had a whole new way it wanted to do things. The city was “tantalized” with the KC Pet Project proposal, according to the former city official. KC Pet Project wanted to focus on education and the contract — about $2.3 million a year — would cost about the same as the city was already spending.

Ellington said he didn’t oppose educating pet owners, but that that alone isn’t enough.

“It's a problem, though, to have city services going to an entity that's not making it safe when it comes to animal control, removing dangerous animals, follow up calls and all the other stuff that you would expect an animal control service to do,” he said.

But KC Pet Project says its new approach is exactly what the city audit called for. Communications officer Tori Fugate said the organization is actually “enhancing public safety.”

Animal control officers aren’t there to simply write tickets and seize animals, Fugate said. “Now they're forming relationships with the community and we're tracking all of the data that shows that this is actually making a huge impact.”

KC Pet Project did not share that data with KCUR.

 The exterior of the KC Pet project campus features an entryway with a vaulted roof.
Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
KC Pet Project has been running Kansas City’s animal shelter since 2012.

Animal ordinance citations drop

Almost immediately after KC Pet Project took over, animal rescue groups started seeing fewer tickets for everything from cruelty cases to spay and neutering.

“Time and time again they show up with a bag of dog food and a doghouse and called it a day,” said Kate Quigley, who runs Chain of Hope, a non-profit rescue organization that works in the urban core.

Citations plummeted with KC Pet Project running animal control.

In the two years before KC Pet Project took over, Kansas City animal control officers wrote 3,683 citations, according to Kansas City Municipal Court data.

In the two years after, KC Pet Project officers wrote 1,973 — a 46% drop.

In that same period, the number of citations for abuse dropped 88% and tickets for dangerous dogs dropped by a third.

The number of tickets written for failing to spay or neuter pit bulls — an ordinance KC Pet Project opposes — dropped 66%.

In fact, Quigley said, when the city ran animal control and officers wrote lots of tickets for violating the spay and neutering ordinance, Chain of Hope would do 30 surgeries a month for owners who didn’t want to pay the fine. Now, they only do ten a month.

“Nobody is making (the pet owners) do it,” she said. “They just keep coming. Puppies and puppies and puppies.”

KC Pet Project says about a quarter of the dogs in its shelters are pit bulls and that has been steady over the last decade. Fugate said the real problem is a lack of affordable spaying and neutering in Kansas City.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says he’s worried about the lack of tickets. “The enforcement side of what we ask that (KC Pet Project) to do is an important one. It's how we keep our kids, our neighbors, safe in the core of our city, and I want to make sure that that step is still part of it,” Lucas said.

Kansas City Councilwoman Teresa Loar, however, says KC Pet Project is “doing fabulous.” Loar has been a vocal supporter of KC Pet Project on the City Council and said fewer citations is a sign of success.

“We're keeping more pets in homes and educating the public and fulfilling the needs that they have to allow their pets to stay home,” Loar said.

KC Pet Project says enforcement doesn’t have to be citations and fines.

“What our officers are trained to do is to partner with that family and provide them with resources first and issue a corrective action period for that owner to come into compliance with whatever that particular violation may look like. And we're very, very successful at doing that,” Chief of Animal Services Ryan Johnson said.

KC Pet Project did not offer their own data to prove their approach has been successful.

 A white Animal Services truck is parked in a lot. In the foreground to the left of the vehicle is a stack of plastic-topped animal carriers.
Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
Since taking over animal control from the city in December 2020, KC Pet Project has written 46% fewer tickets.

Animal control attitudes

Generally speaking, most Kansas City residents were satisfied with the way the city was running animal control before KC Pet Project took over animal services. In a 2019 survey, three out of four residents said they were either satisfied or neutral about animal control, according to a presentation put together by the RFP review committee.

The loudest critics were people in Kansas City’s large volunteer animal rescue community.

Even Quigley from Chain of Hope, who today says she doesn’t even bother to call KC Pet Project anymore, advocated for a change during a 2019 City Council business session.

"People are more progressive, more compassionate, more humane-thinking, and this department hasn't kept up with that," Quigley told TV station KSHB at the time.

Erica Gasper is a full-time mom in the Northland and takes calls from people at all hours about strays and has her own pet chip scanner. She says she was always dubious of KC Pet Project taking over animal control.

“It was quickly apparent to us what kind of problems this would lead to,” Gasper said. Those problems include a slow response from animal service officers, regardless of whether the animal is dangerous or in danger.

She and her colleagues used to have the same complaint when the city ran animal control. Not anymore. “Oh my God, I take back every little, ticky-tack complaint we made,” Gasper said.

The other complaint KCUR heard about KC Pet Project is that the organization is unwilling to abide alternatives to the way they want to do animal control.

“Their attitude was, they didn’t need anybody else,” said Goldie Arnold from the Northland Animal Welfare Society. “I think they were doing a fine job running a shelter but when they took over animal control it was a disaster,” she said.

Fugate called this kind of criticism of KC Pet Project “misinformation,” “inaccurate” and “false.”

What’s next?

KC Pet Project’s animal control contract with the city expires in April 2024 and former city officials say it would be easy for the city to reabsorb animal control.

But Kansas City Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw, who a year ago expressed concerns about animal control enforcement during a budget hearing, said KC Pet Project is doing OK.

“Overall, they are listening to the complaints and the concerns of the constituents, and they are adjusting, adapting and making improvement on the service that they're offering.”

Lucas says he’s not ready yet to terminate a contract with KC Pet Project, but he’s open to reevaluating it.

“I live in a reality of the present, and so I recognize that they are our contractor and it's my goal to make sure they do the best they possibly can. What happens in the future, I think myself and the City Council will have a good chat about it.”

Fugate says KC Pet Project is creating a strategic plan. She says in the end, the organization is doing more than the city even asked.

“We are meeting and exceeding those standards and constantly building and growing this department and making it into the standard in which progressive animal field services in cities of our size and larger should be doing.”

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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