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Don’t let animal care go to the dogs

We had a dog when I was growing up, a spaniel named Toby that was sweet, frisky and a little neurotic, like the rest of the family.

Dogs also populated our entertainment world, including “Lassie” and “Rin Tin Tin” on their weekly TV shows, Snoopy in the “Peanuts” comic strip and “Old Yeller” in the big-screen Disney weeper.

Even the Better Government Association has a long-standing soft spot for our four-legged friends — the BGA mascot has been a bulldog for nearly a century — and we’re thinking about adopting a rescue canine to join our watchdog team.

So it’s disappointing, and at times heartbreaking, to watch the city’s Animal Care and Control agency (ACC) doing what critics consider a poor job of handling lost, abandoned and stray pets and wildlife.

In fact, it’s enough to make a pet lover howl, which many of us are doing these days.

The bottom line is that animals — the main ACC facility at 27th and Western impounded nearly 23,000 and euthanized more than 6,500 of them last year — aren’t treated as humanely as they should be, the agency’s not adhering to its mission well enough, and our tax dollars are being spent in questionable ways.

Here’s a recap of recent problems:

◆ WBBM radio reported huge delays in the agency’s response to calls about the abusive treatment of animals.

◆ Two dogs were accidentally killed at the pound, one mistakenly euthanized before a scheduled adoption, the other apparently choked to death by a city worker trying to control the animal. And insiders tell us other tragic “accidents” have gone unreported.

◆ As the BGA revealed in the Sun-Times, ACC hired a top deputy with no animal control experience and problems on his previous city job, including three suspensions.

◆ The agency’s lack of public transparency has been dreadful, so bad that the BGA sued ACC twice in the last few months to obtain records they refuse to release, though we believe we’re entitled to them under the Freedom of Information Act.

Months of research have also uncovered run-of-the-mill concerns that reflect poor management, including: Dirty kennels; animals left in cages with collars that can choke them; in-fighting between employees and volunteers; other questionable hiring decisions; rude, unprofessional behavior in dealing with the public; and union contracts, inked by the city, that make it difficult to get rid of problem employees.

One way or another, the agency needs to get its act together.

We understand that animal control is a small department by city government standards, with an annual operating budget of only $5 million, and just 80 full- and part-time positions.

We also realize that animal issues pale in comparison to human ones, including poverty, joblessness, crime, educational underachievement — even the city’s alarming ambulance shortage.

But this is also important.

People care about pets — just ask the folks at PAWS Chicago and the Anti-Cruelty Society who provide a wide range of animal care and adoption services to grateful owners — and the city agency has its own critical role to play.

It’s tasked, first and foremost, with making sure dangerous animals aren’t roaming the streets, which is an essential public-safety function.

That’s the “control” part, but the mission also includes “care,” which is too often more like “care-less.”

So what’s the answer?

We’ve heard mostly negative reaction to reform ideas that have been floated in recent years, including a merger of Chicago and Cook County’s animal agencies, or a shift of ACC responsibilities from the city to the nonprofits.

So a logical step is for the interested parties — experts, rescue groups, volunteers and government — to keep talking about better, more professional ways to do the job.

The conversation should also include the city Inspector General’s office, which has been sharply critical of ACC over the years.

On the positive side, the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman revealed this week that physical conditions at the main ACC facility will be upgraded with an $8.2 million face-lift, paid for with tax dollars and a $2 million dollar private donation, and that’s an encouraging development.

But it won’t automatically improve management, training and accountability — key components that require more effective leadership.

And the sooner the Emanuel administration makes that a priority, the sooner we can leave the howling and barking to the dogs.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Twitter: @andyshawbga



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