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With stray dogs roaming, county considers forming animal-control tax district

Apr 11, 2014 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Fremont County officials are interested in forming an animal control district to manage stray dogs and canine diseases. A citizens committee recommended that option, according to Fremont County Sheriff Skip Hornecker.

Such a district could provide more funds to handle animal problems by levying a property tax or requiring residents to license pets and charging a fee for it, according to officials.

"I like the option of creating an animal control district. That puts the onus and responsibility back on the animal owner," Hornecker told Fremont County Commissioners. "There seems to be a significant lack of responsibility on the part of the animal owners."

The sheriff supports licensing pets because it would increase accountability for pet owners, even though it would add another enforcement burden for his deputies. The county would charge for licenses, thereby raising revenue.

Stray dogs are a serious concern for the sheriff's office, Hornecker said in an interview, noting that animal calls are the second most-common call for service his officers receive.

"In most regards they create a nuisance. For instance, they can impact livestock, they can create issues for children, they can create issues for other responsible dog owners," he said. "If they are truly a stray animal they're probably not vaccinated in any regard and can carry any disease, like parvovirus or rabies."

The sheriff envisions an animal control district that would require owners to vaccinate dogs and issue tags for animals showing they have their shots and indicating who the owner is. He also thought the district could sponsor neutering and spaying programs.

"If we came upon a loose animal, it'd help us work back to who the owner is," he said. "Then, if we have a process where dogs are being vaccinated in a proactive approach, the animal disease problem is minimized to a great extent."

Fremont County Commission chairman Doug Thompson indicated he thought an animal control district could levy a property tax to raise revenues.

Keja Whiteman, commission vice chairwoman, doubted the sheriff's office could enforce a pet license requirement

"Who's going to come out and see if my dogs and any of the zillion cats are licensed?" she asked.

Thompson asked deputy county attorney Jodi Darrough to investigate the requirements for establishing an animal control district and asked Hornecker to bring the commission's questions about the idea to the citizen committee studying the dog issue.

The system for handling stray dogs the county had operated under broke down in October when operators of facilities that had been housing animals for the county stopped accepting them.

Before, strays were picked up by the Sheriff's Office and taken either to the Paws for Life Animal League facility in Riverton or to kennels operated veterinarian Rich Boulette, of Lander.

Boulette that month determined he could not longer take animals because a fire had damaged his facilities. At about the same time, Paws announced it had depleted funding the county allocated it to cover housing strays and stopped accepting them.

Now, the Sheriff's Office no longer picks up stray dogs. Deputies still try to resolve stray-dog issues and pick up vicious dogs, however.

Deputies have trouble holding owners responsible because there can be no way to know who owns a stray or vicious dog, Hornecker said in an interview.

After Boulette and Paws started turning away strays from the county, Hornecker, with the support of the county commission, formed a committee of concerned citizens to look at the stray issue.

That group considered bringing all of the county's strays to Paws but thought the shelter might be unable to handle all the animals. It would also cost the county more, Hornecker said.

Another option would be to put out to bid a contract for housing the county's strays. The sheriff was concerned that few businesses would step up to compete for the contract.

"I'm not sure what the market is that exists for that," he said. "I'm not sure if would be cost effective. It may increase costs overall."

The citizen committee includes residents from the Riverton, Lander and Shoshoni areas, plus a representative of the sheriff's office.