COLUMN: Curb your government, curb your dog

Monday, May 17, 2010 | 12:38 p.m. CDT; updated 3:27 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 17, 2010

Pet news. It’s as if Columbia has ceded all power and control to those furry or feathered creatures, making them seem as if they’re more important than anything else. What with all the dust-ups involving Zootoo’s mysterious “up to a million dollar” makeover, the leadership shake-up at the humane society, a couple of teenage girls’ on and off and on again support for the animal shelter, the wrangling over city funding for spaying and neutering, the urban backyard chickens debate, and a dog killing by police, one would think we’ve got nothing else to think about. So, maybe, shooting dogs isn’t such a bad idea after all.

I learned this lesson a while back while I was in Mexico — legally, by the way. In those days, I was lucky to have a friend as good as Joe Sanchez, who treated me like the son he never had, so I treated him like the father I always wanted.


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Joe lived in a house in Baja California about 30 miles south of the border, a few kilometers south of Rosarito Beach. High above a cliff overlooking the Pacific, I’d lie awake at night during my visits to just listen to the waves crashing against the rock wall. (Want to go? One time, my idyllic hacienda became the epicenter of conflict — over dogs.

It seemed that some of the gringos — American expats who lived in the development — were upset because the Federales in nearby Rosarito Beach had a pretty efficient way of dispatching stray mutts. You guessed it — exactly one strategically placed bullet. Those residents wanted Joe to sign a petition demanding that the police stop shooting dogs and that the city’s government set up a more humane way of dealing with the animals.

What Joe said has stuck with me. In a city where street urchins, wearing ratty hand-me-downs and covered with dirt, sell chewing gum for a few centavos so they can help support their families, it’s inappropriate to spend scarce resources on dogs. A bullet, Joe said, is quick, easy, practical, and cheap. It’s not your country, he told them, so let them handle it their way.

Now Columbia isn’t Mexico (though I’ll admit I was a bit confused when I first moved here because Missouri has one too), but maybe there are some things our city, county and state can learn about priorities. For instance, we can consider things like our financially floundering MU campus, the achievement gap and other crises facing our school district, the inability to provide adequate mental health and other services to needy individuals, poverty and a host of other critical human issues and then make decisions about animals that make more sense.

The Central Missouri Humane Society, for instance, spent nearly $1 million in 2008, according to its most recent federal filing, to prevent cruelty and to promote “responsible pet ownership,” including acting as the main animal shelter for 20 counties in mid-Missouri. From 2004 through 2008, CMHS extracted about $3.5 million from local communities — much of it from government agencies — funds that could have been used for things far more important than people’s errant pets. And that’s the rub. Is paying for pet owners’ irresponsibility a community responsibility?

For most individuals, pet ownership is a luxury, meaning it’s something they want rather than need. Asking people to bear the cost of their animals is no different than expecting a family to buy its own Xbox. So, for instance, when the Columbia City Council appropriates thousands of dollars to spay and neuter pets and to provide other services, I can’t help but wonder why the owners aren’t paying or what makes sense about taxpayers footing the bill. If you can’t afford a pet, why do you have it?

Cities and counties must rethink how they cover animal control costs and begin imposing fees and penalties that defray the public expense and deter bad behavior (No, bad pet owners! No!). They also need to get more efficient about disposing of animals when they become overly burdensome. Columbia’s ordinances, for instance, don’t impose license and redemption fees even remotely sufficient to reimburse the city. And in some cases, if a person can’t afford them, they’re waived.

I suppose there are people — like PETA members and utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer at Princeton — who elevate animal rights to the same level as human ones. But I’ve experienced too many places racked by human suffering — including Columbia — and so my priorities evolved differently. Ultimately, animals are property that must be maintained safely and properly by their owners. Government is obliged to economically and efficiently manage the problems created by those who don’t.

A Remington .44 magnum round at Bass Pro costs about 70 cents. Make my day.

Michael Jonathan Grinfeld is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a co-director of MU’s Center for the Study of Conflict, Law and the Media.

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Allan Sharrock May 17, 2010 | 8:45 p.m.

I am surprised there are not any hate postings on here. They fill up the other blogs when it comes to animals.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin May 17, 2010 | 10:13 p.m.

This column raises some serious and relevant questions about the Central Missouri Humane Society (CMHS).

But it misplaces blame for that organization's problems on "errant pets" and "errant pet owners."

Professor Grinfeld rightly asks, "What's with all the dust-ups involving:

1) Zootoo’s mysterious “up to a million dollar” makeover
2) The leadership shake-up at the humane society
3) A couple of teenage girls’ on and off and on again support for the animal shelter
4) The wrangling over city funding for spaying and neutering"

Answer: a disengaged CMHS board of directors with questionable interest and expertise in animal care; no money; a crappy facility; and unrealistic expectations about the organization's mission in a city whose leaders worry more about subsidizing billionaires that taking care of basic services.

I've lived in many cities around the country, and in no place have I seen the disastrously poor funding from local government that plagues CMHS.

Our city and county leaders expect CMHS to function as both a private humane society dedicated to animal adoption AND a public animal shelter dedicated to animal control, with virtually no funding for the second, much larger role.

(Compare Jeff City/Cole County's $800,000 annual shelter funding to Columbia/Boone County's $100,000 annual shelter funding).

What we get is a cheap alternative to a public health service virtually every other community enjoys: a municipal animal control center, aka a "dog pound."

If Prof. Grinfeld is worried about the millions he thinks CMHS is "extracting," then I'd suggest a far more efficient and effective alternative: a publicly-funded animal control facility.

(Report Comment)
Patty Forister May 17, 2010 | 11:53 p.m.

Municpal income received through contracts with the City of Columbia, Boone County, and other surrounding counties accounted for less than 1/6th of the Humane Society's income last year. The remaining funds were generated through shelter service fees, fundraising and donations. Charitable giving through generous donors has kept the Humane Society alive. In the United States, I think people have the right to donate their hard-earned money to which ever charity they choose. Thank goodness some people choose to care about animals!

You'd really have something to write about if the City of Columbia had to subsidize their own municipal shelter to the tune of nearly a million dollars. I suggest that you investigate what comparable cities are paying per capita for animal care and control. You'd be surprised to see what a sweet deal the City of Columbia really gets. Do the'll see.

(Report Comment)
Eric Cox May 18, 2010 | 3:05 p.m.

Comparing America to a third world country?

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock May 18, 2010 | 4:26 p.m.

Sweet deal? Far too much money is not being spent on humans. I can't fathom why it takes so much money to run a shelter and why there are starving kids in America and we are worried about some animals. I do agree anyone should be allowed to spend their money how they like. However, tax dollars should be spent on A. humans and their needs. B conservation. I don't think fluffy is endangered.

(Report Comment)

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