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‘A really tough thing to enforce’

Officials look to beef up animal welfare laws

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WEDNESDAY, DEC. 26 — City officials are looking to update state law and ramp up enforcement following complaints about neighborhood dogs being repeatedly left out in the cold to whine throughout the winter nights.

Residents along Genessee Drive often call Joan Austin, concerned about the questionable treatment of pets on their block. She’s a local animal lover. And one home on the street was known to leave their dogs outside, unattended through the winter months, she said. The dogs whimpered; neighbors would dial up Austin.

“It usually takes some really nasty, criminal act to spark a change in the law,” Austin explained. “Here, it's cold, it's not proper housing and it seems to be a really tough thing to enforce. Lots of other states are passing laws now because you have to have something stronger to fall back on. These dogs are constantly crying out there.”

Last month, Austin, joined by a few other west side residents, brought their concerns to Lansing City Council’s committee on intergovernmental relations. Despite best efforts by the police department and Ingham County Animal Control, state law doesn’t necessarily provide a mechanism to fully quell the neighborhood concerns.

And collaboration between local law enforcement departments could use a little bit of work, officials said.

“It’s not that any situation with animal cruelty is unchecked. It’s about making sure enforcement is consistent,” explained committee chairwoman and City Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar. “There was a consensus around the table that language regarding adequate shelter could be tightened up in the state law.”

The statute requires dogs left outside have proper bedding and access to food and water. Dunbar said that seems to address most conditions, but not freezing temperatures during Michigan’s wintry months. And Austin said animals in her neighborhood will be sometimes be left outside long enough for their water bowls to turn to ice.

Adjustments to the law could also elaborate which breeds are capable of withstanding outdoor conditions and which breeds need additional protections, Dunbar noted. An Alaskan Malamute, for instance, can handle the wintry weather much better than a Chihuahua. State law doesn't get nearly that breed-specific on the topic.

Lansing’s recently-elected State Rep. Sarah Anthony said she’d be more than willing to step up to the bat for enhanced animal safety laws within the state. She’s just waiting for someone to reach out with some suggestions.

“It won’t exactly be a sell,” Anthony noted. “They’ll just be letting me know what issue needs to be addressed.”

What can local government do?

Before any new state law could make much of an impact, officials want to streamline communication between the city police department and county animal control. Animal Control only handles calls from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. City officers, when they find the time, take animal-related calls during the evening and overnight hours.

Dunbar said local officers aren’t always tuned in to county-level investigations regarding animal welfare, making it difficult to navigate the severity of each call. Local cops, for instance, could be handing out warnings — if they respond at all — when animal control might’ve otherwise seized a repeatedly distressed dog from a home.

“In that case, the owner gets mixed messages from two different enforcement agencies, rather than a consistent progression of sanctions,” Dunbar said. “Hence, we are trying to get both agencies in a room to find a solution.”

The committee previously explored a city ordinance to tighten up animal safety laws but the city isn’t prepared to launch an animal welfare division of its own. Besides, county officers can’t legally enforce the city ordinance. And the county cannot unilaterally adopt animal control laws either. They’re tied to existing state laws on the subject.

A police department spokesman said officers start and forward reports to animal control overnight. Lost dogs can sometimes be transported to a county drop-off but local officers typically only pay attention to leash and noise violations, said City Attorney Jim Smiertka. That’s all that’s actually written on the city’s books anyway.

“Generally speaking and for the most part, all animal issues/complaints are directed to Ingham County Animal Control for investigation/follow-up,” according to a recent statement from a police department spokesman.

Animal Control Director Jodi LeBombard said police frequently forward concerns to her office but recognized that communication could be better. County Commissioner Bryan Crenshaw said he’d like to expand operational hours for animal control but finances are tight — and he doesn’t want to “burn out” the staff.

“If we had an unlimited checkbook, it'd be great to have 24/7 animal control. In the evenings, however, it can also be less safe for officers to go to certain situations by themselves,” Crenshaw said. “I think, for the county, we can work with Anthony to make some amendments to the law that could allow for additional enforcement.”

What can local residents do?

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