Government and Nonprofits

Kent County Animal Shelter is a people business

Bissell Pet Foundation funded record number of pet adoptions this fall.

December 19, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Kent County Animal Shelter
Carly Luttmann, shown with Hillary, says an adoption fee waiver for the holidays has resulted in a record number of adoptions from the Kent County Animal Shelter. Photo by Jim Gebben

On the surface, the Kent County Animal Shelter seems to be mainly about dogs and cats, but it is really a business that revolves around people and their relationship with animals.

It is largely funded by the taxpayers of Kent County. About $1.25 million or more of its annual budget of $1.9 million comes from the county general fund, so the shelter management tries to run it like a business — albeit a complicated, public-service business.

Carly Luttmann, program supervisor at KCAS, and her staff are experimenting with extended hours on weekdays, in exchange for eliminating Saturday morning hours. Now open until 6:30 p.m. weekdays, it appears more dogs and cats are adopted in the extra weekday hours than was happening in the Saturday morning hours. For working people who cannot make it in during the week, the shelter will hold four special adoption Saturdays per year.

But the big news this fall has been “Home for the Holidays”: Through November and December, fees for adoption of dogs and cats have been waived, thanks to a large grant from the Bissell Pet Foundation in Walker.

Based on data compiled by KCAS, adoptions at the shelter increased in November by 57 percent as a result of the promotion. On average, 75 adoptions are completed each month, but in November there were 118. The previous record was 110.

The cost to adopt a cat can range from $5 to $40, according to Luttmann, and for a dog it is $80 to $143. No license is required to own a cat, rabies shots aren’t required, and there is no law against allowing a cat to roam. Not so for dogs.

In adoption fees, “we break everything down based on what we put into it,” said Luttmann. First, there is the fee for staff time spent on adoptions; then there is a license fee for dogs, and every animal must be spayed or neutered prior to adoption. There is also a microchip inserted under the skin of each dog and cat, with a lifetime registration at one of the online organizations that stores the owner’s contact information.

Adoptions are just one part of what KCAS does. As a division of the Kent County Health Department, it is the public safety and law enforcement agency responsible for animal control. Laws mandate protection of the domestic animal population from abuse and other health risks associated with humans, and laws also protect the human population from disease and injury associated with animals. Hence, all dog licenses require the dog is up to date on state-mandated rabies shots.

Luttmann and the seven animal control officers at the shelter are special deputies of the Kent County Sheriff’s Department, and there are usually four or five of their trucks working all over the county on a given weekday. They handle about 6,000 complaints a year, ranging from dogs at large to animal neglect and cruelty cases. Those cases are investigated and documented by animal control officers and the staff veterinarian, then turned over to the Kent County prosecutor. Luttmann said Animal Control’s success in criminal prosecutions is virtually 100 percent.

KCAS employs about 22, and has a small group of volunteers. One of the key full-time positions at any major animal shelter is a veterinarian. A new one is being sought at KCAS since the current vet is moving on. The posted salary range is from $56,650 to $68,000.

People come to KCAS every day looking for lost pets. The owners are taken to look at the cats or dogs housed there, about 200 animals. Over the course of a year, KCAS cares for about 7,500 animals. At this time of year, the shelter takes in an average of 30 animals a day, but on some summer days, the number can reach as high as 80. The ratio between cats and dogs is almost exactly 50-50.

When one of the officers picks up a dog roaming at large, the law requires the dog must be kept at the shelter for a certain number of days before being euthanized to give the owner a chance to reclaim the animal. There is no law against allowing a cat to roam, however, so Animal Control is not legally empowered to pick up stray cats.

KCAS Animal Control is required pick up some pets at large that generate complaints from the public. Some are exotic pets that aren’t legal to own, lost or abandoned by irresponsible owners.

“When I say we take anything, I mean we take anything,” said Luttmann. That includes chickens, goats, pot-bellied pigs, boa constrictors … They’ve picked up alligators 3 feet long, said Luttmann, and a few years ago, Animal Control had to get a Nile monitor lizard that was up in a tree near a playground in Grand Rapids.

KCAS also offers several services to residents of Kent County who bring in their pets for much less than a veterinarian would charge. That includes insertion of a HomeAgain microchip for $20, and euthanizing a suffering pet for $20, which includes cremation. The ashes are then spread in the flower garden at the Sleepy Hollow Pet Cemetery, with which KCAS has a contract.

Luttmann said dog licenses are “our biggest source of revenue” other than the county appropriation. In fiscal 2014, it was almost $340,000, but she noted they suspect only about 17 percent of the estimated 140,000 dogs in Kent County are licensed. To increase that number and the subsequent revenue, KCAS is trying to make licensing easier for dog owners. Last year it implemented a three-year dog license, and some veterinarian clinics now sell the licenses. That’s practical because the dog must also have a current rabies vaccination.

KCAS works to build cooperative partnerships with other animal shelters, both public and private, in the region. Those include the Humane Society of West Michigan, Vicky’s Pet Connection in Ada, Carol’s Ferals in Grand Rapids and Reuben’s Room Cat Rescue.

Bissell, the global home floor-cleaning products company in Walker, “has been the really big one” when it comes to helping animal shelters, said Luttmann — and not just in West Michigan.

According to Holly Kroeze at the Bissell Pet Foundation, it is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 2011 by Cathy Bissell. Bissellpetfoundation.org states she is director of corporate affairs for Bissell Inc. and a “lifelong pet lover and advocate.” She also created LostPetUSA.net with her sister, a free website for reuniting lost pets with their owners, and Bissell’s Partners for Pets, a program assisting animal welfare organizations with fundraising.

The mission of the Bissell Pet Foundation is to help reduce the number of homeless dogs and cats by supporting organizations dedicated to humane care and treatment of animals through adoption, spay-neuter programs, micro-chipping and foster care. A major source of funding comes from Bissell Homecare Inc.; a portion of every sale of its pet-related products is donated to the foundation.

Since the foundation’s start in October 2011, grants have been awarded to 215 organizations in 35 states and it has provided $1.8 million to help homeless and abandoned pets in all 50 states. Kroeze said the foundation has partnered with more than 1,000 animal shelters “and that number is growing every day.”

Kroeze said Bissell learned through research that many dogs and cats are abandoned or turned over to shelters because the owners cannot handle the messes the animals make in the home — hence the direct connection with Bissell Homecare’s pet-cleanup products.

The largest chunk of foundation money — $764,236 — has been to fund spay-neuter programs.

Luttmann said the KCAS focus on maximizing incoming revenue from its services and grants is critical “so we can continue to have a successful animal control program and a nice place for the critters” that get caught up in the system.

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