When KC Pet Project took on the contract for all animal control services for Kansas City, MO, on December 1, 2020, we announced that our team would bring forth a progressive approach to animal services in our community. We know that Kansas City is ready for this positive, progressive approach. What does that look like for our community?
1. It starts off by having a non-judgmental approach in all cases that are reported to us, and by treating each individual with empathy and compassion.
We want to empower our community and support people by first working with pet owners to deliver information and resources in a way that can finally interrupt the cycle of habitual issues — changing behavior and actually addressing the root cause of neglect. In many cases, neglect or unintentional cruelty is simply a lack of resources or information. Our Animal Services Officers, like other enforcement officers in the city, are responsible for a balancing act of ensuring Kansas City is a humane community, while also respecting the civil rights of our residents. Some investigations lead to a discovery of exigent circumstances (meaning there is imminent danger to the animal) and in those situations, our officers seize the pet. Other cases prove to be code violations or inadequate care for an animal, but do not present as immediate danger to a pet – resulting in a Notice to Correct being issued to the pet owner and a follow up by an officer. Our officers will use this opportunity to talk with the pet owner about resources that are available to them either in the community or through KC Pet Project, the ultimate goal being compliance.
2. Our officers are writing citations to pet owners, but not for lower-level offenses.
For decades, animal control agencies across the country have been performing at a very punitive level. Think of the dog catchers in every movie or TV show you’ve seen. Except that — in addition to your pet coming to the shelter — after the fact, you would receive tickets in the mail for which you had to appear in front of Municipal Court and pay fines associated with this. Historically in Kansas City, this was the process for everything from stray dogs roaming to not having a city license for your outdoor cat, in addition to higher-level offenses, such as cruelty or neglect.
Our approach is in line with Mayor Lucas’ criminal justice reform platform for minor violations that can be remedied by quickly achieving compliance, particularly violations that have been disproportionately enforced in lower-income communities. (ref 1, ref 2) Punitive, and in some cases unconstitutional, actions (like seizing dogs from homes for minor violations without a warrant or exigent circumstances) result in distrust, risk court dismissal, trap indigent defendants in a vicious cycle of fees and fines, or the owner simply replaces the animal and provides the same inadequate care. This does nothing to lift up our community or provide the support or resources needed to care for pets as part of the family. We work closely with our animal law attorney, the city prosecutor’s office, and the Jackson County prosecutor; citations are certainly issued when we can no longer gain compliance from a pet owner.
There is a misconception that our officers are not writing citations for higher-level offensives, which is incorrect. Our officers submit violations to the city prosecuting attorney’s office through the same software that is used by all city departments and the Kansas City Police Department. Once submitted, it is up to the prosecuting attorney to move forward with the charges. No Animal Control organization within Kansas City, MO, has ever had the authority to prosecute anyone.
Through our Reclaim Fee Forgiveness Program, all intake fees are waived for stray pets that enter our shelter if reclaimed within the first two days. There are no tickets or citations given to pet owners for stray pets as there have been historically. Again, this is an effort to ensure pets are reunited with their families and we are not criminalizing poverty.
3. We work with pet owners to provide resources, issue Notices to Correct or warnings, and perform within the legal bounds set by KCMO ordinances.
At KC Pet Project, our goal should never be to take pets away from people who love them. Instead, our team is here every day to provide resources and support — including education — for pet owners who may be struggling to make ends meet, are experiencing crisis, or are just in need of someone that can offer a little help.
Providing resources to our community can help break the cycle of unintentional neglect that can escalate over time to cruelty. Simply taking pets away from people does not help break that cycle. Our officers live and work in the communities they serve. They want what is best for their friends, their families, and their neighbors – to make a difference – one person, one animal at a time.
Since taking on the Animal Services contract in December of 2020, we have responded to more than 10,000 calls for service. Our officers strive daily to lift up and support our residents to make our community a better place for pets and people, and the call volume is a direct reflection on the trust that our community has in our team.
Since taking on the contract, there have been several blogs, social media posts, and online commentary that suggest our officers did not do enough to help an animal in need. You may have seen photos of pets in these social media posts and thought on the surface, “Yeah, that’s not OK.” What these pictures and stories do not show, however, is how our officers are working to make contact with the owners to see if resources are needed. Social media posts fail to highlight individuals associated with these circumstances, and that we all need to assume positive intent when working with members of the same community that you and I live in. These are people who may have fallen on hard times. They could work nights, they may be working multiple jobs to support their family, they may be going through health issues, or they may have made a mistake. With every case, our officers approach everyone with empathy and compassion.
Defaulting to just taking a pet away from an owner feeds the broken system of not getting to the heart and root cause of the problems that we’ve seen with cruelty and neglect cases in Kansas City for years. As the 2017 audit of performed by Kansas City, MO of the animal control services performed at the time by Kansas City Animal Health and Public Safety (AHPS) division highlighted:
AHPS’ focus on enforcement of animal-related code violations versus educating owners and resolving violations in the field is not always successful in achieving the desired outcome of improved animal welfare and public safety. Impounding animals puts them at risk of illness, stress, and abandonment; more than two-thirds of animals impounded in Kansas City for cruelty-neglect violations were not reclaimed by their owners. These owners are not educated on responsible pet ownership, yet could obtain another animal, which may continue the cycle of neglect. In some cases, such as lack of pet license violations, writing citations has failed to ensure compliance as pet owners can simply pay for citations without fixing the violation.2017 Audit by Kansas City, MO
We are committed to bringing a much-needed change to the approach of animal control services in Kansas City. Changes that were recognized more than four years ago. We are working with our community to help them with what they need, whether it be a new doghouse, providing a new tie-out instead of a chain, providing medical care when we can, and other resources through our “Keep ‘Em Together, KC” program. And after those resources are provided, our officers will continue to follow up to ensure these changes are made and that they can obtain what they need.
4. We ask for time to help resolve issues.
We ask for your trust and the understanding that sometimes these situations don’t resolve themselves overnight. We work as quickly as we can to resolve concerns legally and within our local ordinances in Kansas City. If an animal needs to be removed from a property, but is not in imminent danger, we must build a case for the legal means to remove an animal through a search warrant, including identifying violations and identifying an owner’s failure to correct that problem.
Unless the animal is in immediate danger, we must give pet owners a chance to do the right thing – to seek veterinary care, find appropriate housing, seek help with supplies and pet food. Because if we don’t allow pet owners to be a part of the process and we just walk away with the pet, then we are no closer to working through or breaking down the barriers that owners might face to improve the situations for their pets.
We have an outstanding team of dedicated lifesaving professionals at KC Pet Project in our shelter and in our Animal Services Division who are giving everything they can every day to helping pets and people. This is the real work of giving people the benefit of the doubt and assuming good intentions. Kansas City is ready for this new approach to animal control services, and we invite you all to get involved with our organization to be a part of the solution.