The Fulton County Department of Public Health says “dog control officers” hired by local town governments are refusing to do rabies confinements and quarantines of “anything but a dog” —- contributing to a rise in rabies and the possible need for a countywide solution to the problem.
“Public Health has been dealing with an increase in rabies cases, confinements and boarders,” Public Health Director Laurel Headwell told the Human Services Committee of the Fulton County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
Headwell did not provide any specific data to illustrate the increase in rabies locally, but did provide a synopsis of the history of the county’s rabies policies. She said Fulton County has had a Rabies Protocol plan in place since 1993, a plan that always relied on local town and city governments to participate by hiring local Animal Control Officers. She said local governments since the 1990s have gradually shifted to only complying with New York state Agriculture and Markets Law Article 7, Section 113, which states, “each municipality in which dog licenses are issued shall appoint one or more dog control officers.”
“What municipalities are doing now is only naming Dog Control Officers and they’re only caring to dogs, whereas we still have cats that we have to tend to and ferrets and other animals,” she said. “So, we are No.1 struggling with municipalities finding an Animal Control or Dog Control officer and No.2 we do have some municipalities that are just refusing to go out and do anything with animal control.”
Headwell said she is asking Fulton County’s town supervisors to take her concerns back to their local town boards to try to convince them to revert town policy back to the original intent of the 1993 Rabies Protocol Plan by requiring their Dog Control Officers to also deal with other types of animals. If that doesn’t work, she thinks the county needs to staff a solution to the problem, but preferably not through her department.
Headwell said she’s been forced to task county Dept. of Public Health staff with dealing with rabies confinements and quarantines of the follow-up contact and paperwork required for some animals in the county.
“Which is really a lot of work for our staff, and we really don’t have enough staff to do that,” she said. “It’s really about checking up on (rabies) confinements for us. We don’t want anyone chasing a skunk, or any of that, but (the Public Health Dept. gets involved) when the animal bites. Right now we have dogs, cats, ferrets that we have to check up on … we have a six-month quarantine on a couple of kittens because they were not able to be vaccinated, because they were too young. So now I have to send one of my staff members out every month to do this, because (all of the town Dog Control Officers) are refusing to do it, and it started with one municipality, but now we’re up to two or three, and we can’t get people to return phone calls.”
Headwell said there is typically an influx of rabies cases during the spring and summer months. She said most of the rabies problems she sees are with domesticated animals, with a typical transfer pattern being a housecat catching and killing a rabid bat. She said she advises the public to, “make sure your pets, as well as your friends and relatives’ pets, are up to date on their rabies vaccinations.”
During the committee meeting on Tuesday Broadalbin Supervisor Bruce Vangenderen asked Headwell whether Dog Control Control Officers can also serve as Animal Control Officers. She said they can, but they have to be tasked by the town governments to deal with other animals besides dogs.
Fulton County Administrator Jon Stead said he recalls when there was a significant rabies outbreak in the county several decades ago there was another push to get local governments to establish effective Animal Control Officer services for the many different types of nuisance animals like racoons and skunks that can become infected with rabies.
“The towns tried to get their (Dog Control Officers) to be willing and capable of dealing with all animals, but then that died down a bit, because frankly the Animal Control Officers don’t want to go out in the middle of the night and chase a racoon down the street and catch them and package them and so forth,” Stead said. “Dogs are easier to handle, easier to control …. and somebody cares when they are missing. They might be on a leash when you get there, if they bite somebody you can at least deal with it, whereas a wild animal is a whole different situation. (The state requires) a minimum of a Dog Control Officer, but what everybody really needs is an Animal Control Officer.
Caroga Supervisor Scott Horton said his town pays approximately $5,000 annually to contract with a Dog Control Officer, but that person only deals with dogs. He said he thinks each town having its own policy with part-time contracted Dog Control Officers is not proving to be an effective method of dealing with the spread of rabies.
“I’m wondering if we might be better at consolidating this into a county service and have the towns contribute (to the cost of staffing the service),” Horton said. “In (Caroga’s experience) we have the Dog Control Officer enforcing dog registrations, and there’s fines, but how many times is he out and about (doing enforcement)? Maybe 10 or 15 times a year, and we’re spending $5,000.”
Horton said he believes a centralized county Animal Control Officer would save taxpayers money and provide a more effective service.
“Right now we have a lot of duplication, and I’m not a duplication kind of guy,” he said. “Maybe the townships would have to pony-up a few bucks, but it would probably be less budget wise, and certainly much more responsive because you’d have somebody whose job it was to do this. Right now the people hired by the townships, it isn’t their full-time job. A county person would have a vehicle, containment cages — we could have the kinds of facilities and tools to do it properly — and it would be more than just dog control; it would be animal control.”
Horton, who is the chairman of the Human Services Committee of the Board of Supervisors, said he disagrees with Headwell that her department should not be tasked with dealing with animal control, but he agrees that there needs to be a dedicated staff person to that job. He said he intends to advocate some kind of consolidation plan for the towns to contract with the county to provide an animal control service, but he doesn’t know how long it will be before he is ready to present a formal plan to the members of his committee and ultimately the full Board of Supervisors.
“This will go to committee,” he said. “Laurel Headwell did say she does not want to take on this responsibility, so it might need to go to the county Finance Committee first to see if it’s feasible, and then decide which committee should deal with it. I think it should be under Public Health, because they have identified and highlighted this problem.”