Who's Watching the Animals? - Has St. Joseph County had enough?

By: Ryan Famuliner Email
By: Ryan Famuliner Email

Our investigation into the St. Joseph County Humane Society sparked a lot of debate in the community, and among public officials.

Soon after our stories in May, county leaders toured the facility and talked about the humane society's plans for the future.

Now, it's possible those plans might not include the county at all.

A good way to understand any relationship is to see what happens when you disagree.

The working relationship between St. Joseph County and the humane society recently went through that test.

About a week ago, a dog bit its owner when the man reached in its mouth to pull out a bone stuck in its throat.

The dog was about a month late on its rabies vaccine, and, under county ordinance, when a dog is overdue it needs to be taken into quarantine to see if it may have rabies.

The owners wouldn't turn it over, so the humane society tried to get a warrant to seize the dog. But that was blocked by county commissioners, who said it was an unjust use of power.

"I have to know that they're on my side, and we're working for them, but it seems like I'm being second guessed, and I don't like it," said Dr. Carol Ecker, the director of the St. Joseph County Humane Society.

County Commissioner Mark Dobson, who was out of town for meetings this week, told us over the phone that they had to step in.

"We felt that was pretty abusive -- it wasn't equated to a hardened criminal. You know, this was John Q. Citizen who made an honest mistake, and had solutions available to them that protected the public's interest," Dobson said.

Dobson says there were arrangements for the dog to be left at the office of Dr. Kryder, a local vet, to be quarantined.

County Commissioner Mark Dobson (right)
County Councilman Rafael Morton (left)

But Dr. Ecker says that is not the proper step, and that they shouldn't have been questioned in the first place.

"If they don't want us doing this, if they think we have too much power, then take it out and give it to somebody else. Let the sheriff's department do the bite cases, you know. That's their call, but don't go behind my back," Ecker said.

But Dobson says this isn't the only time something like this has come to his attention.

"The humane society does not have arrest power, and there was, when your story was breaking (in May), they had humane society employees out writing tickets on county ticket books. So we've seen an abuse of power before from her, and we're not going to allow it to happen," Dobson said.

Ecker says county officials told her they could write tickets, and both say that issue is resolved.

But what's left is doubt.

"You know, there's some real issues with the director there and the way she operates things. And I guess until we're comfortable that it's going to meet the needs of the community, it's really hard for the commissioners to move forward on renewing anything," Dobson said.

The humane society does contracted animal control work for St. Joseph County and the city of Mishawaka.

Dr. Carol Ecker

The county's contract is up this year, and both sides aren't sure if they'll reach an agreement.

"I think it's a people problem, I really do. Maybe we can all sit down and talk about this. And I need to know they're going to have faith in our job, or change our job description," Dr. Ecker said.

But the county says it is possible that job description could change to "unemployed."

"If we can't work together, or if the mission statements are that much different, then we may have to look at something more along the lines of a merger with South Bend (and St. Joseph) county operations," Dobson said.

That process has already started.

Dobson says he recently asked Mayor Steve Luecke if South Bend Animal Control would be able to take over county animal control duties, too.

"We're just now formulating the idea and concept. We haven't even been able to do much more than say, 'hey, we're interested in talking.' And you know, the same response back, 'we're interested in listening,'" Dobson explained.

The move would end the county's relationship with the humane society, which has lasted for decades.

"Well, as long as the animals are taken care of, that's fine. You know, we have a lot invested in our trucks, we have a lot invested in other things. But it's all about the animals," Ecker said.

Dobson says the relationship could be saved, but says that after seeing the conditions in our stories in May, and for himself a few weeks later, he now needs to see some solutions to the overpopulation problem, as well as plans for a new facility.

"From our perspective, in signing any long term contract, they would show us what the plans are so we could understand how the government operations fit into that facility, and if it doesn't work we all go our own way," Dobson said.

The humane society has $2 million to spend on a new building, which Dobson thinks would be more than enough to build a sufficient facility.

But at the same time, Ecker says those plans hinge on whether or not they'll have a contract. She says they need to know whether they'll have the roughly 3,000 animals that contract brings through their doors each year.

"We have money in the bank to put our shelter up, but I can't build a shelter that's so big it takes care of the county animals as well as everything else if they're not going to pay us. Right now, the building I've got planned is without the county animals," Ecker said.

"At this point we still don't have any sense that there is any plan that's moving forward or plan that's addressing the problems that are out there. That's the problem -- she wants the county's money, but she doesn't want to answer to anyone in the county, and that isn't going to work. If you're going to take taxpayer funds, you're going to have to have accountability to the taxpayer," Dobson said.

Dr. Ecker also says a big problem with their negotiations is that they need more of a financial commitment. She says that their contract with the county was cut by 18-percent last year.

Meanwhile, she says she is on good terms with the city of Mishawaka, which typically signs a three- to five-year contract with the humane society, as opposed to the year-to-year contracts with the county.

Commissioner Dobson says they realize they may have to invest more if they decide to work with South Bend Animal Control.

South Bend is also in the process of trying to build a new facility.

South Bend Animal Control was actually founded 12 years ago, when the city decided to stop using the humane society for its contracted work. That happened after disagreements over the price of the contract.

To view our past coverage of this story, click on the links below.

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