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News / Life / Pets & Wildlife

With Cowlitz County animal control under law enforcement, shelter reports fewer rescued animals

By Brennen Kauffman, The Daily News
Published: April 22, 2024, 5:00am

LONGVIEW — When Marcia Ericksen got a Facebook message in late February about an injured kitten found in a nearby alley, she sprang into action.

Ericksen is one of the most active cat fosterers working with the Humane Society of Cowlitz County. She and daughter Olivia Ericksen have fostered dozens of cats locally and in Lewis County, where she lived until moving to Longview in 2022.

But getting help for the stray kitten in her new city has proved surprisingly difficult. No animal control officer was able to help that Thursday night. The next day, Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office said their animal control officers couldn’t arrive until three days later.

Ericksen ended up taking the cat to an emergency vet in Woodland instead.

“All I’m trying to do is help in the place where I live,” she said. “I’m confused about why this system is broken.”

Stray cats live in a legal limbo in Cowlitz County because of the new arrangements between the Humane Society and individual animal control units, typically housed at the police departments in each municipality. Under the new contracts, the Humane Society only accepts stray animals that come directly from animal control or are signed off by animal control. Longview and many other areas say they don’t have the time or money to address the stray cat population when dangerous or loose dogs pose a more immediate problem.

“Dogs are bigger. Dogs tend to be higher priority,” Longview Police Capt. Branden McNew said. “There’s no such thing as vicious cat call.”

When its animal control program launched in January, Longview police said they would direct stray cat care to other animal care groups. The problem? Very few groups exist that can fill that role.

“There’s a vacuum of animal service providers in the area, so there’s not a lot of options,” McNew said.

At the same time, the Humane Society’s other program to limit the number of stray cats is on pause. Director Darren Ullmann said the shelter briefly relaunched  its Community Cat Program this month. Staff work with volunteers to spay and neuter stray feral cats to lower reproduction under the program. Ullmann said 120 feral cats were caught, fixed and vaccinated before they ran out of funding again.

Ullmann said he hopes more animals will start coming in as animal control officers gain experience.

“Right now, the only animals we are really seeing is dogs from animal control,” Ullmann told The Daily News in March. “They have told us that they will not pick up stray or feral cats.”

Fewer rescued animals

The Humane Society gave up animal control at the end of 2023 because the nonprofit said it couldn’t keep up with the program’s cost. However the number of animals brought to the shelter has drastically dropped this year under the new system, partially because everyday people can no longer bring in strays.

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Over the first three months of 2023, the Humane Society took in a total of 734 animals which were dangerous, injured, rescued from abusive homes or strays. That dropped to 426 animals over the same time period this year — a 42% decline.

Intake for stray and at-large animals alone declined by more than half, dropping from 340 strays in the first quarter of 2023 to 143 strays this year.

Now, the responsibility to catch and transport stray animals is placed on the municipalities’ animal control officers.

Between January and March, Longview Police Department took 15 dogs and 13 cats to the humane society. Cowlitz County’s animal control brought in 27 dogs during the same time period, along with two cats and one duck. Kelso Police Department brought in eight dogs and no other animals.

Ericksen said the cost to shelter animals is a leading reason officer don’t bring them in.

Instead of paying a flat fee to contract with the humane society like in previous years, the cities and Cowlitz County now pay for each animal that has to be sheltered, costing $300 per animal in the majority of cases. The system leaves it up to animal control officers about whether they can handle the case on their own or need to bring them to the humane society.

“They’re not wanting to pay more for animals, but they’re doing a disservice to our community by not picking them up off the streets,” Ericksen said.

By the numbers

  • Total animals

734 total animals were taken in at the Cowlitz County Humane Society from January to March 2023.

426 total animals were taken in at the Cowlitz County Humane Society from January to March 2024.

  • Strays

340 stray and at-large animals were taken in at the Cowlitz County Humane Society from January to March 2023.

143 stray and at-large animals were taken in at the Cowlitz County Humane Society from January to March 2024.

Source: Cowlitz County Humane Society

Working together

The county is working to respond to more animal control calls. On Tuesday the Kelso City Council approved a mutual aid agreement between the city and Cowlitz County to help each other provide after-hours responses to calls at nights and during the weekends.

Cowlitz County Sheriff Brad Thurman said the department responded to 240 incidents involving animals over the first three months. The unit is on call for weekend and late-night issues, but with only two staff members the responses are limited.

When a call does come in outside business hours, Thurman said the officers prioritize the cases where animals are severely sick or injured, or that stem from another sheriff’s office investigation.

“We try to limit those calls as much as possible if anything can wait,” Thurman said.

McNew said Longview discussed making a similar agreement with the county. Longview has historically fielded more animal control complaints than the county, however, and is trying to keep the city’s program self-sufficient with the current two officers on call.

“The daytime hours is when we get the most bang for our buck,” McNew said. “Calls about barking dogs are not an emergency … we are handling those calls but handling them after the fact.”

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