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Critics fed up with county’s ‘very broken’ animal control - KTVQ.com | Q2 | Continuous News Coverage | Billings, MT

Critics fed up with county’s ‘very broken’ animal control

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Jenny Michaelson sits in her living room with Nacho, her golden retriever. Ed Kemmick/Last Best News Jenny Michaelson sits in her living room with Nacho, her golden retriever. Ed Kemmick/Last Best News
Cassie Dennison’s black Lab, Mac, seen here with her husband Travis, was put down by the county before Dennison even knew Mac had been impounded. Ed Kemmick/Last Best News Cassie Dennison’s black Lab, Mac, seen here with her husband Travis, was put down by the county before Dennison even knew Mac had been impounded. Ed Kemmick/Last Best News
After 24 years as Yellowstone County’s animal control officer, John Fleming recently took a new job as a process server for the sheriff’s office. Ed Kemmick/Last Best News After 24 years as Yellowstone County’s animal control officer, John Fleming recently took a new job as a process server for the sheriff’s office. Ed Kemmick/Last Best News
Yellowstone County contracts with a private veterinary service, Big Sky Pet Center at 7565 Entryway Drive, to temporarily house impounded dogs and, rarely, cats. Ed Kemmick/Last Best News Yellowstone County contracts with a private veterinary service, Big Sky Pet Center at 7565 Entryway Drive, to temporarily house impounded dogs and, rarely, cats. Ed Kemmick/Last Best News
BILLINGS -

Jenny Michaelson was one of the lucky ones.

She managed to get her dog back after it had been impounded by Yellowstone County. But Michaelson, who lives just west of Billings off Grand Avenue, gives no credit to the county for the return of Nacho, her golden retriever. 

According to a report in Last Best News, she said the county held her dog—one of the most recognizable breeds there is—for five days, even though clerks at the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office, which has authority over the animal control division, told her repeatedly that the county was not holding a dog that fit Nacho's description. And when she called Big Sky Pet Center, the holding facility where county animal control takes impounded dogs, people there would tell her nothing.

Michaelson said she got her dog back only because a volunteer with the Rimrock Humane Society, figuring Nacho had to be someone's pet, picked him up during a visit to Big Sky Pet Center. And then somebody familiar with the humane society saw Michaelson's lost-dog ad in the Billings Gazette.

Cassie Dennison wasn't so lucky. Her family's beloved black Lab, Mac, was euthanized by county animal control officer John Fleming before her family even knew it had been picked up near Dennison's home in Shepherd. The 8-year-old purebred Lab went missing on Nov. 26, the day before last Thanksgiving.

As was the case with Michaelson, Dennison said, her family was told that no dog matching Mac's description had been picked up by the county. And when she first spoke with Fleming on Dec. 9, Dennison said, he told her he had picked up Mac himself, and that the dog “was either euthanized or adopted out.”

The next day, Dennison said, Fleming told her an unknown person had brought the dog in and that it had been euthanized, either by a veterinarian or a “county official.” He later said that he checked his records and confirmed that he had indeed put the dog down himself.

Those two stories, animal rescue volunteers say, highlight continuing problems with the animal control division. They said sloppy, inefficient procedures made it difficult, sometimes impossible, for county residents to determine whether their dogs were being held by the county. They said too many dogs were being killed, and too few were being returned to their owners.

What makes it worse, they say, is that three years ago they thought something was going to be done about the division.

Sandy Church, the Rimrock Humane Society director, and one of her volunteers, Ellen Quinn, had met with County Commissioner John Ostlund to talk about Fleming's seeming unwillingness to work with their agency and other adoption agencies. They also complained that Fleming, who has been in his position for 24 years, was unilaterally deciding what animals were “unadoptable” or too aggressive, and then euthanizing them.

In addition, they said, Fleming worked from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday, leaving deputies untrained in animal control to deal with incidents involving animals for much of each week. Fleming had an assistant for a time, but she retired in November 2013 and was replaced for only one month during the summer of 2014, after which that person quit.

Church said when they met with Ostlund, the Rimrock Humane Society offered to photograph impounded pets and to post the photos on Facebook, Craigslist and other websites, to make phone calls and do whatever else was needed to take the burden off the sheriff's office.

After the meeting, Church and Quinn said, the sheriff's office pledged to work more closely with adoption agencies, and to do more to educate the public about how best to retrieve dogs that were being held by the county.

Ostlund and Sheriff Mike Linder even appeared in a public service announcement, letting people know what to do if their dogs went missing. The 30-second TV spot said dogs unclaimed after 72 hours would be turned over to the Rimrock Humane Society, the Yellowstone Valley Animal Shelter or Billings Animal Rescue Kare.

People were also advised to call the sheriff's office with a description of their lost dog, and if the county had it, “they will tell give you instructions on how to reunite you with your pet.”

But, if anything, Church and Quinn said, the situation only worsened after the ad was filmed. Rather than trying harder to place animals with the Rimrock Humane Society, Quinn said, Fleming “just quit calling altogether.” And though Fleming briefly allowed photos of impounded dogs to be taken and given to clerks at the sheriff's office, he soon stopped that practice, adding another hurdle to the process of reuniting dogs and their owners.

Church said she and Quinn decided to go to the press with their complaints, rather than back to county officials, because “you just get to the point where you feel, why bother?” The final straw, she and Quinn said, came when two domestic cats that Rimrock said it would take were euthanized anyway.

Ostlund said in a recent interview that he was surprised and disappointed to hear the complaints. After those meetings three years ago, he said, he thought Fleming was going to start photographing every impounded dog and doing more to reunite dogs with their owners.

“I have been under the impression that he (Fleming) is doing a bang-up job,” Ostlund said. He said he hadn't heard any new complaints about the division, and “complaints and compliments are the only way we have of getting a grip on what's going on.”

Linder said on Tuesday that Fleming recently applied for a new job in the sheriff's office and will soon be working as a process server. Fleming will stay on in animal control until a new person is hired, Linder said, and interviews with some prospects have already been scheduled.

Linder also said he was planning to meet with Fleming and Fleming's supervisor, Capt. Bill Michaelis, to talk in more depth about the animal control division. One reason they hadn't yet had those discussions was that Michaelis was working on a new records-management system, which is being introduced simultaneously in the city's public safety departments and in city-county dispatch.

That new system itself might help make the animal control division more efficient, Linder added.

To get an idea of how the animal control division was operating, Last Best News obtained copies of “euthanasia logs,” found dog reports, lost dog reports and stray animal drop-off forms from the county and Big Sky Pet Center. Big Sky is located just off the Shiloh Interchange at 7565 Entryway Drive.

The euthanasia logs, required by state law, contained a listing of every animal euthanized by Fleming, including how much euthanasia solution was used for each killing. Big Sky Pet Center provided Fleming with the solution.

A review of all those reports, which were shared with Church, Quinn and Laura Moore, who was a vet technician at Big Sky Pet Center from 2006 to 2011, turned up numerous discrepancies, information gaps and crucial omissions, all of which may have contributed to the difficulty of getting dogs back to their owners.

One of the most surprising revelations for the animal-rescue volunteers was the number of cats put down by Fleming. Fleming said in an interview that most of the felines were “barnyard cats,” and he probably killed 100 to 150 of them a year. But according to Fleming's euthanasia logs, the county put down 227 cats just between May 12, 2014, and Jan. 26 of this year.

Church and Quinn said that in all their conversations with county officials, they were never told that the county doesn't even attempt to return cats to their owners. They were shocked to hear that Fleming, in an interview with Last Best News, said there was no county ordinance on cats, and that “we don't allow impoundment of cats.”

“They're treated no differently from skunks, raccoons, coyotes—a nuisance animal,” Fleming said. With rare exceptions, he said, when he picked cats up they were taken to a small shed behind the county shops, just west of the jail, where he would euthanize them.

Late last year, when Last Best News began to question Fleming and other county officials about the animal control division, Fleming said he didn't know if he was licensed or certified to perform euthanasia, though he did produce a certificate saying he had received training in euthanasia procedures.

However, records kept by the state Board of Veterinary Medicine showed that Yellowstone County was not a board-certified “euthanasia agency.” Early in January, Fleming stopped doing euthanasia and turned his remaining euthanasia drugs over to Dr. Rob Bruner, the owner of Big Sky Pet Center.

Bruner said he performs euthanasia only if an animal is clearly suffering or is extremely aggressive and “unhandleable.” He said he told the county he wouldn't do any other kind of euthanasia.

“I made it very clear I was not going to be doing any kind of convenience euthanasia or mass euthanasia or anything like that,” he said.

Linder said that for now, the county will not be taking in feral cats. He said Fleming started doing so several years ago, after farmers and ranchers in the county called him for help with “large populations of feral cats.” If they call now, Linder said, they will be told to take care of the problem themselves.

After a new animal control officer is hired, the policy in regard to feral cats, and other aspects of the division's operations, will be re-evaluated, Linder said.

“Maybe we'll come up with another plan (in regard to feral cats), but I don't want to do anything until we're following all the rules,” he said.

State law does allow “support personnel,” which means someone employed by a veterinarian, to perform euthanasia. Bruner said he was contracted by the county to provide a holding facility and has no authority over Fleming. He said he provided euthanasia solution at the county's request.

Cheryl Brandt, executive officer for the state Board of Veterinary Medicine, said violations of state laws regarding euthanasia technicians are investigated if complaints are lodged, and no one ever reported anything about Yellowstone County's noncompliance.

Linder said Fleming may have been certified to perform euthanasia at one time, but “when we did some checking into it, we found out, hey, this is probably lapsed.”

Numerous other problems and discrepancies were noted in the documents provided by the county. For instance, an analysis of reports on 16 dogs that were euthanized by the county between June 1 and Dec. 10 of last year showed that there was no indication where eight of them were found, no indication of gender on six of them, and nothing to indicate whether seven of the dogs were wearing collars—the sort of details that make identifying the dogs much easier.

And though the reports are supposed to say where adopted dogs went, the reports on 11 of 16 dogs that were adopted out by the county in December failed to state what individual or agency took the animals. Also in December, a 1-year-old yellow Lab, whose collar identified him as “Trigger,” was euthanized. All the final report said in the comment section was “note left for owner.”

In another case, an Australian shepherd was reported being impounded on Oct. 21 and euthanized by Fleming on Oct. 27. On the euthanasia logs, however, there is no record of that dog's death.

Deputy County Attorney Kevin Gillen said there was “no accurate reason for the discrepancy,” and that the shepherd “may have been given away or may have been euthanized.” Gillen said he would “chalk that one up to being a mistake in recordation concerning final disposition.”

Audrey Lindgren worked as Fleming's assistant for a little more than a month last summer. She had worked for city animal control for a year and a half before that and joined the county because she thought it would be a better job. Fleming's previous assistant had been gone for two years and the county finally hired Lindgren to replace her.

Lindgren said she lasted only a month because the county “made a lot of promises, none of which they could uphold.” She said the failed promises had to do with training, pay and responsibilities.

She said she was also disappointed by what appeared to be an utter lack of outreach or public education. She suggested posting descriptions of all impounded dogs on the Lost/Found Pets of Billings MT Facebook page, which Fleming OK'd.

She posted just two—and the dogs were quickly claimed by their owners—and then Fleming told her to stop the practice.

“He told me he was told by someone else they didn't want that done,” Lindgren said.

Laura Moore, the former vet technician at Big Sky Pet Center, said Fleming or his former assistant used to photograph impounded dogs and give copies of those photos and descriptions to the sheriff's office clerks. Eventually that practice stopped, she said, though she didn't understand why.

“I think he (Fleming) just got lazy, to be honest,” she said.

Fleming, in an interview, said he stopped allowing photographs to be taken because “it's difficult to ID a dog from a photograph… . It just wasn't working.”

Fleming was asked why, in addition to giving county clerks copies of photos, he didn't post photos online so people could quickly determine whether the county had their dog.

“I don't do anything online,” he said. “I think it would be more of a hindrance to put dogs online… . We don't run a humane society or an adoption agency.”

As for not allowing people in to look at impounded dogs at Big Sky Pet Center, Bruner said that has always been the policy.

“We are just a temporary holding facility for animals that are found in the county,” he said, but it is also a business with lots of private clients. He said there is no way he could accommodate an influx of people wanting to come in and look for their pets. He also confirmed that people who call the center are told to call the sheriff's office.

Quinn said there was one way people could look for their pet at Big Sky. If people thought their pet was being held by the county, Quinn said, they could pay an estimated boarding fee at the sheriff's office and then take the receipt to the pet center. They could claim their dog if it was there. If not, they could go back to the sheriff's office for a refund.

Bruner said that had happened in the past, but to his knowledge only “a couple of times.”

Lindgren said another problem with the county animal control division is that Fleming uses a simple Excel spreadsheet to enter information on impounded dogs. Unlike the lengthy, detailed form the city filled out on impounded dogs, she said, Fleming's descriptions are scanty, often confusing and sometimes erroneous. She also said the clerks answering the phone at the sheriff's office might not have understood how to use the spreadsheets provided by Fleming.

And sometimes, Lindgren said, Fleming wouldn't enter anything on the spreadsheets for days after picking up an animal. “There's no sense of urgency,” Lindgren said.

But Fleming did do one thing the county greatly appreciated, Moore, the former vet tech, said. He saved the county a lot of money.

“The reason there's been no flak for so long is that John keeps the numbers down,” she said.

Until about 10 years ago, the county took dogs to the city-run Billings Animal Shelter, which has been operated by a private agency, Yellowstone Valley Animal Shelter Inc., since 2008. A news story published in 2007 said county commissioners stopping using the city facility and switched to Big Sky Pet Center because Big Sky charged them $17,000 a year for a service that would have cost $55,000 at the city shelter.

Michaelis, Fleming's supervisor, said the county sometimes paid the city shelter well over $55,000 a year, as much as $80,000 some years.

“We might spend $20,000 in a bad year now,” he said. “It's not the perfect situation, but it's saving the county a lot of money.”

Quinn said it appears the county is already responding to criticism of the animal control division, and she hopes the hiring of a new animal control officer will pave the way for further changes in operations.

“Yellowstone County has lost sight of the fact we are dealing with healthy, living, breathing animals that in most cases are a beloved family member,” she said.

Quinn said she would also like to see changes in the law so that cats are no longer considered a nuisance animal, and she would like to have a professional trainer evaluate dogs before they are deemed unadoptable and euthanized. If more people knew of the problems in animal control, she said, there might be public pressure for an improved system.

“I believe that the majority of Yellowstone County residents would be willing to pay a few more tax dollars to change this very broken system,” she said.

Related story:

One dog gone, one saved, two owners share frustration



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