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Public unhappy with Hawai’i Police’s operation of Animal Control Services

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The photo on the Hawaiʻi Police Department’s Animal Control Services’ website page shows cute dogs and cats, but its director said most animals taken into its shelter are dangerous.

Person after person stepped up to the table or spoke via Zoom to tell the Hawai‘i County Council that animal control on the Big Island isn’t in control of the increasing numbers of stray, abused, neglected and lost animals.

The Council’s Parks and Recreation and Public Safety Committee heard hours of in-person testimony and received nearly 80 written comments this month from residents around the island who say the Hawai‘i Police Department’s Animal Control Services is failing to do its job.

One testifier said there was “utter incompetence.” Others called for an audit of the department’s operations and finances.

County Council members agreed during their Oct. 18 Parks and Recreation and Public Safety Committee meeting that there is room for improvement.

Animal Control Services Director Regina Serrano and Hawai‘i Police Department Maj. Aimee Wana attended the meeting as part of a discussion about the issues Animal Control faces. The discussion, postponed from Oct. 4, was requested by Councilwoman Heather Kimball.

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Last year, the Police Department took over animal control services for the county. Maj. Wana explained work continues to build out the agency to be fully functioning and provide the services mandated by the county. The department continues to intake animals and respond to calls at all hours of the day.

Serrano said misinformation has swirled around the island for more than a year about Animal Control. She said the department’s responsibilities are largely misunderstood.

She said Animal Control is essentially a safety component of the county and does not handle population control.

The agency primarily shelters dangerous dogs and handles impounds. While the public thinks that the animals are socialized, usually that is not the case.

Serrano said, contrary to what the community might think, the majority of the animals currently in the County’s care are either dangerous; confiscated because of cruelty, neglect or other reasons; or brought to the agency because their owner was arrested.

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Those animals, which must be held because of the situations in which they are involved, nearly fill one of the two Animal Control shelters on the island. So in order to take in animals that don’t fall into these categories, including strays, as the public wishes, Serrano said the agency would require more shelter space and safer conditions.

Because the department is often likened to other nonprofit organizations that handle stray and lost animals with their own missions and agendas, including the Hawai‘i Island Humane Society, the scope of its work has been largely convoluted.

“That doesn’t mean that areas of need aren’t legit, but it doesn’t necessarily lie with Animal Control or within our budget or abilities,” Serrano told the Council.

Maj. Wana said people — including some within county government — still refer to Animal Control as the Humane Society, even routing documents inappropriately. The organization, which is one of 15 transfer partners Animal Control works with, held the contract for animal control services for the county until 2020.

“They provided an abundance of services that our community has become accustomed to and now expect that the government continue to hold and perform, but that’s not what’s required of the county code or of Animal Control,” Maj. Wana said.

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Animal Control handles dangerous animals and it takes in as many strays as it can. It also provides medical care and spay or neuter services prior to moving animals for adoption to its transfer partners. However, the department also is charged for those services.

“Last year alone, we spend over $300,000 in medical care for animals, which includes spay and neuter for animals leaving our services as well as medical care of animals within our facilities,” Maj. Wana said.

Serrano said because of veterinarian shortages and limited staffing, the agency has made the most of what it can with the staff it has.

Graphic from Hawai‘i Police Department Animal Control Services.
Graphic from Hawai‘i Police Department Animal Control Services.

A total of 178 animals were taken in by Animal Control in September, including 31 cats, 137 dogs, one bird and one other unspecified type of animal, according to a report on the Animal Control website. Of those animals, a total of 40 were given back to their owners, 70 were transferred to partner facilities and 82 were euthanized.

Comparatively, Animal Control took in a total of 203 animals in September 2021, including 61 cats, 140 dogs, one bird and one pig, with 43 of those animals being returned to their owners, 75 transferred and 32 euthanized.

Animal control also is dealing with shelters in desperate need of repair and staffing shortages.

Serrano said the agency’s West Hawai‘i shelter, to put it nicely, is literally falling apart. Many animal runs don’t have roofs, meaning they could potentially climb out and escape. A new facility recently acquired in East Hawai‘i faces some of the same issues.

The agency also has only about a third of its positions filled, so some Animal Control officers and employees are working huge amounts of overtime to cover the island 24/7. An average day is about 12-15 hours, according to Serrano, and that doesn’t include being on call.

One of the areas needing immediate assistance is the agency’s call intake team. A larger team would help the agency better serve the community. Serrano said Animal Control receives 50 to 75 calls a day, with each call averaging about 23 minutes. Many callers are inquiring about services for feral cats and pigs. Others are reporting animal cruelty or other matters that require a lot of time on the phone.

No action was taken during Tuesday’s meeting. It was simply a conversation. Council members agreed, however, that something needs to be done.

“I’ve dealt with this issue for many, many years, particularly when the Humane Society was the contractor,” Council Vice Chairman Aaron Chung said. “There’s always been this philosophical clash between what the mission is of Animal Control. Is it absolute control or humane treatment of the animals? That’s something that’s going to have to be resolved.”

Councilman Tim Richards and the rest of the Council also agree that the County needs to move forward, but there are no easy fixes.

“For our animal control, for our county, we’re talking about safety and cruelty and managing that going forward,” Richards said.

Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said: “There are so many moral and value driven issues related here than there are feasible, logistical, financial responsibilities that the Police Department has been obligated to as kuleana and my heart feels for all of you. I wish I had the solution.”

Committee Chairman Holeka Inaba said Animal Control needs to continue to provide input on what changes are needed to move forward, including any amendments to county code. He also wants to make sure the capital improvement projects needed, including at the agency’s shelters, are funded.

“Mahalo nui to the both of you for this update,” Inaba told Wana and Serrano. “Obviously, there’s more conversation to go on here.”

Graphic from Hawai‘i Police Department Animal Control Services.
Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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