Left unattended, feral cat population could rise, city panel told

Animal-control officer tells committee she runs ‘a very tight ship’ in Crestwood.

By EVAN YOUNG

Left unattended, the feral cat population and prevalence of infectious animal diseases in Crestwood may increase, the city’s animal-control officer and a local veterinarian said.

Suzie Sutton and veterinarian Dale Diesel of the York-shire Animal Hospital in Marlborough addressed the Animal Control Study Committee last week in what likely was the fact-finding group’s final meeting before reporting back to the Board of Aldermen.

At issue is the potential elimination of Crestwood’s 30 year-old animal-control program. While officials have recommended using the county’s services to reduce city expenses, opponents of the proposal believe the county would not provide the amount of services Sutton currently offers.

Sutton, who became Crestwood’s animal-control officer in 1998 after 25 years as the founder and director of Missouri Wildlife Rescue Center, said one of the issues she faced when she began her job with the city was a “long-standing reputation” Crestwood had an “enormous population of feral cats.”

“We have significantly reduced that population, but I think it’s important to note that one female cat, her kittens and their kittens can produce 11,800 in five years,” she said. “And if I were to leave here tomorrow I would worry about what would happen to Crestwood and in the five-year time period I can’t imagine how many cats would suddenly appear back on the horizon.”

Crestwood also could experience an increase in infectious animal diseases, several of which — such as rabies, various parasitic worms and mange — are naturally transmittable to humans, said Diesel, who provides veterinary services for Crestwood animal control.

“Rabies is alive and well in St. Louis County. I had four clients in the last year who had to undergo rabies treatment because a bat was found in their house,” he said. “… It doesn’t have anything to do with pets, necessarily, but rabies is out there and it’s an important disease because it’s fatal.”

Nationwide, rabies cases are decreasing in pets because of increased vaccinations, but are increasing in wildlife, he said.

“So these diseases are out there,” Diesel said. “The main resources of those are going to be things like your feral cats, your dog pack populations. These are just the diseases that can be carried, spread and maintained in the environment in an active basis. Now I’m not naive enough to think that everybody who has a dog or cat takes them to the veterinarian. But even if 60 percent of them do, it cuts down what you’re going to see there. But we can’t control where the strays go and things like that.”

The Animal Control Study Committee is expected to present its findings to the Board of Aldermen on March 9.

The group’s deliverable will include a “matrix” comparing the city’s animal-control program to the county’s.

That document likely will include some of the costs to run Crestwood’s program.

Douglas Brewer, the city’s finance officer, presented committee members with a breakdown of the program’s 2009 revenues and expenditures last week.

Included in the $13,211 the program took in last year was $8,015 in donations and adoption fees. That money is considered part of “Friends of Animals,” which was founded by Margie Theiss in 1979. Those revenues are deposited into the city’s park and stormwater fund but can be tracked separately, Brewer said.

“These are city monies, also. I think that’s important to distinguish. This is not a separate entity. This is a line item. It’s city money. It’s deposited into the city’s bank account but it’s typically referred to as Friends of Animals monies,” he said.

Sutton said “Friends of Animals” was comparable to a “revolving door.”

“We get donations in, of course, from people who are happy with what we’ve done, our work or we found Joe Blow’s dog and he was thrilled and gives you $100 or whatever,” Sutton said. “That money goes into that fund, and we use that money for the veterinary services that are required for other animals that come in … And then in our adoption fees we recover those costs and the money goes right back into the Friends of Animals fund. So it’s money that’s coming in and going out all the time.”

However, Friends of Animals revenue does not cover Sutton’s $51,238 in salary and benefits, or vehicle and animal shelter costs, Brewer said. Total 2009 expenditures for local animal control were $61,071. That does not include $14,000 for a new roof and new siding for the Whitecliff Park shelter, which is budgeted for this year.

A local 501(c)(3) not-for-profit group, Friends of Animal Control and Rescue, hopes to raise enough money to fund half of the $7,000 roof project, group representative Mary Wheat said.

“Our focus is a new roof for the shelter,” Wheat told the committee. “It is our goal to assist the city with a minimum of half the cost of the new sub-roof and a new roof. It is our current intent to seek further funds and in-kind donations to achieve this goal.”

During regular business hours, Sutton picks up stray animals, rescues injured or ill animals, helps residents resolve animal-related conflicts, enforces animal related ordinances and addresses wildlife issues and concerns, among several other duties, she said.

City police provide animal-control services after-hours and on the weekends. Sutton, however, said she remains on-call for emergencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Roughly 30 volunteers also work at the Whitecliff Park shelter, tending to animals and cleaning the facility, she said.

The resources to trap wildlife, which Sutton said she does herself, has been an argument against switching to the county’s animal-control program, which opponents contend doesn’t extend to wildlife calls.

Asked about frequency of local wildlife calls, she said, “It’s very seasonal. In the spring and summer months, when there is wildlife young, the calls increase dramatically. When there are outbreaks of distemper or fox mange or whatever, those calls increase. It’s kind of nice in a city the size of Crestwood, it’s kind of easy to see what’s going on.”

Sutton added that calls tend to increase during extreme weather conditions.

However, a representative from county animal control, Becky Smail, told the committee last week the county does offer limited trapping services in response to calls pertaining to bites and animals inside residences.

The county currently covers 524 square miles, employs 12 animal-control officers and is looking to hire four more, Smail said. Officers work three shifts — daytime, evening and overnight — with a maximum of six officers on duty during the day and evening shifts and three officers available overnight, she said.

That breaks down to 87 square miles per officer with six on-duty and 174 square miles per officer for three.

“Our response is based on priority,” Smail said. “If the police need our assistance we’re going to get there as soon as possible. If there’s an attack and the citizens need us we’re going to get there as soon as possible.”

The county will merge its Florissant and Ladue animal shelters into one location, in Olivette, by early 2011, she said.

In her presentation, Sutton listed a series of her accomplishments over the past decade, such as overhauling the pet tag program, establishing an animal adoption program and updating the city’s “woefully out-of-date” animal-control code.

She said the program has received 11 perfect scores on annual inspections by the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

When it comes to enforcing animal-control ordinances, Sutton said she runs “a very tight ship,” which has “made a difference in the number of animals that are running at-large.”

“I certainly know that it’s far different in Crestwood than it is where I live in Kirkwood,” Sutton said. “As soon as I’m driving home, I begin to see dogs running in the park. I have cats that run on my property that I think have been dumped. It’s a very different situation.”