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Animal Ordinance Violators Go Back to School

In Kansas City, Kansas, new program teaches first-time offenders the ABCs of responsible pet ownership

When pet owners in Kansas City, Kansas, don’t follow the letter of the law, Municipal Court Judge Maurice Ryan doesn’t exactly throw the book at them.

He throws them at the books instead, compelling them to attend a class on becoming a good pet parent. Called the “first-time animal ordinance offender diversion program,” the new system involves the courts, the Humane Society of Greater Kansas City, and the Kansas City Police Department.

Resembling more of an after-school rehabilitation program than a court-ordered rebuke, the class is a one-time, three-hour session; pet owners who attend are those who have been found guilty of typical but serious infractions—letting a dog run at large, for instance, or failing to provide an animal with adequate shelter. During presentations by the humane society’s education coordinator and the police department’s animal control supervisor, the first-time offenders hear about the history and purpose of animal-related ordinances and receive tips on proper care of pets.

A new class is held each month; those who attend still have to pay a fine, but generally it’s reduced to half the normal amount. The arrangement was the brainchild of the humane society’s operations director, Lorna Helmig, who years ago witnessed a similar class in Kansas City, Missouri. “A lot of these people get tickets, and it’s all out of ignorance,” she says. “They don’t know what the ordinances are; they know that their dog isn’t supposed to run loose, but they don’t realize you can get a big ticket and be charged a lot of money for it.”

To demonstrate the cost of irresponsible behavior not only to animals but also to society, animal control supervisor Mike Frazer uses part of his speaking time to discuss topics such as the ripple effect of a dog bite on a community in terms of homeowner liability claims, increases in veterinary fees, and other measurable financial losses. In the second half of the class, the humane society’s education coordinator, Karen Sands, makes attendees aware of the basic standards of care and the many services available to help pet owners obtain that care.

Many people just don’t realize that their animals need vaccinations or that subsidized sterilization options even exist, says Helmig. “You can’t teach empathy in one hour,” she says, “but we’re trying to get them to look at the animal as a living creature who needs basically the same things that humans need to be happy, safe, and healthy.

“Some people believe an animal is just an animal and should be chained up outside, etc., and you’re probably not going to change that ... type of mentality,” she says. “But if they’re going to have an outside dog, [we want to tell them about] the things that they have to do to keep him healthy and safe.”

Many people in the Kansas City area see their dogs as four-legged security officers, says Sands, using them as live alarm systems. But Sands points out to class participants that a dog chained in the backyard won’t make a bit of a difference if an intruder decides to sneak quietly around the front. “I try to educate them that they really will protect you if they’re in a house [instead],” she says.

To illustrate that crate-training is a great way to introduce dogs to the indoors—and to show that purebreds are available for adoption from shelters—Sands brings along her education partner, a crate-trained, 85-pound red Doberman named Jack whom she adopted from a city shelter. She also passes out tips on caring for pets in the heat of summer or the dead of winter, distributes information about spaying and neutering, and provides a chart that lists fees for services provided by the humane society. “We talked about how when they leave their dogs out in summertime, even leaving food out attracts bugs and flies, which in turn brings maggots, and then that gives their dogs worms and makes them sick,” Sands says. “They hadn't thought of that.”

For those who leave the class still intending to keep their dogs outdoors, Sands provides tips for making the outdoor area safe for the dog, advising owners, for example, that unstabilized water buckets aren’t a good idea because they can easily tip over and leave the dog with nothing to drink.

The information in the first class last September was enough to keep the three students engaged throughout the session, Sands says. In fact, at the end of the seminar, all three indicated they were going to make use of shelter services: One man, after hearing about the dangers of heartworm, was worried his dog might have it and wanted to bring him into the clinic to be tested, treated if possible, and neutered. Another attendee asked how he could go about getting his dog vaccinated. And the third, a woman whose dog had been running at-large while in heat, expressed an interest in bringing her dog in to be spayed.

“So they all three inquired, which obviously means they were paying attention,” Sands says. “I thought it was great, and [before this] they didn’t know that we offered low-cost services. And we also have a program where if they spay or neuter their dog, they get a 40-pound bag of dog food, and they thought that was neat.”

Though the program is still in its infancy, Judge Ryan and the humane society are looking forward to expanding it. When he was an attorney, Ryan saw firsthand the need to combat ignorance when he was involved in a lawsuit in which a Rottweiler killed a boy. Poverty and lack of awareness are the two things that most often land people in Ryan’s courtroom on charges of violating animal ordinances, he says. “That, I think, is the biggest factor—a lot of people who really can’t afford to have pets have them,” he says. “I’d say that 99 percent of the people who come into my court don’t get their dogs heartworm [prevention].”

While Frazer wonders about the effectiveness of such a program and questions how it can ever be measured, Helmig and Sands have faith that people in general want to do the right thing and sometimes just need to be shown how. And because word travels fast, Helmig says, the class could have more far-reaching benefits beyond just its four walls, as people go home and tell their friends and relatives about what they’ve learned. “I’m a firm believer that whatever you tell people, they’re going to tell other people,” she says. “If it’s a negative thing, they’re going to tell people negative things. If it’s a positive thing, they’re going to tell people positive things. ... I’m a firm believer that you can spread a lot of information by word-of-mouth—with even just a few people.”


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