Big Island struggling with stray, neglected, vicious animals. Is new agency the solution?
February 7, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
When Bubba, a yellow short-hair mixed-breed dog, wandered onto a ranch in Waimea last summer he was starving.
Waimea resident Judy Howard said the animal was initially found on her neighbor’s property, but since they didn’t have a place to secure him, she took him in, joining her pack of 10 dogs.
“He was a wreck,” Howard said. “He was skin and bones. His pads had been rubbed raw. I’m not sure how he was able to stay alive.”
While Bubba is back to a healthy weight, Howard has yet to find his owners and no one has been able to adopt him. Howard said she normally has good luck finding owners of lost pets but was unsuccessful with Bubba. She said: “I think he was abandoned.”
Reports of abandoned dogs, and sometimes even litters of puppies is not uncommon in Hawai‘i County. The Big Island community regularly reports these sightings on Facebook.
The Hawai‘i County Council hopes to address these abandonment and other issues by creating a new “Animal Control and Protection Agency,” which will be discussed for the first time Tuesday at 1 p.m. during the Governmental Operations and External Affairs committee meeting.
Council chairperson Heather Kimball said Bill 22 is fairly straightforward. It would create the agency and amend portions of Chapter 4 that has references to the Hawai‘i Island Humane Society, which was responsible for animal control services for several years until they decided not to submit a bid to renew their contract in 2020.
The humane society said it wanted to focus its efforts on lifesaving programs and community outreach. But it has continued to serve as a private transfer partner for County of Hawai‘i Animal Control.
While animal control services were briefly outsourced to Hawai‘i Rainbow Rangers in April 2021, the Hawai‘i Police Department took over the duties in July 2021 as part of a pilot program. This proposed bill continues that program with the creation of a new agency.
“There’s general agreement that we need to improve animal control services,” Kimball said. “This was determined to be the best avenue to accomplish that goal.”
Kimball — who represents the communities of North Hilo, Hāmākua and portions of Waimea —said she gets many calls regarding stray animals, as well as issues about neglect and vicious animals.
“It’s not going to solve every problem right away,” Kimball said of the proposed bill. “There is a lot of work to do. This the first step in many to address these issues.”
Howard thinks the bill is putting the cart before the horse because they’re creating an agency before defining its exact duties.
“How can they create an agency before they know what they want to accomplish?” Howard questioned. “We need to get ducks in a row before funds are committed. We need a real plan. The county has a horrible record of hiring employees. What’s an agency going to do?”
Howard said the Big Island has a horrible explosion of animals with no place to take them. For the past two years, the community has not a had a place where people can surrender dogs, especially after the Waimea shelter, which was run by Rainbow Friends Animal Sanctuary, shut down in August 2022 after being unable to renew its lease.
“The only options are to shoot it or tie it to fence and leave it,” she said.
It should not be going on like this, Howard said, adding: “I’d much rather have a dog humanely euthanized than be abandoned and starved.”
Howard said there needs to be a good way to report lost and found animals. Currently, there is no central way to coordinate that. Facebook has become the main way to share information.
Lauren Foo, one of the founders of Hawai‘i Island Pets Alive, a group that works with the county and nonprofit animal agencies to help bridge the gap for animal services, said she has been in communication with Kimball regarding details of the proposed bill.
In general, Foo said, the group is in support of a new agency taking control of animal services. However, she said they have conditions before they can fully support the bill.
Foo listed a number of things the bill needs to address. One of which includes revising County Code Chapter 4, which specifically details the responsibilities of animal control, including taking in surrendered and stray animals.
“In fact, they’re (the Hawai‘i Police Department) not performing up to code now,” Foo said. “They’re not picking up animals. The public is.”
Foo said they’d also like a community oversight committee to be part of the bill.
“We feel one of the key reasons why animal control has been unsuccessful in the past is because the community hasn’t been involved,” she said. “Without that, this bill is a nonstarter.”
Foo also feels it’s important that there be clear areas of responsibility with the agency as well as who will be in charge of animal population control on the island.
“The county dollars should be put aside for a spay-neuter program,” Foo said. We had to hobble along with what the nonprofits provide.”
Lauren Nickerson, CEO of Hawai‘i Island Humane Society, submitted testimony in regards to Bill 22. It said animal control is a challenging job that is physically, mentally and emotionally taxing.
The core functions of animal control services, especially a division that is operating solely as a municipal-run model such as County of Hawaii Animal Control Services, are public safety, law enforcement,and sheltering of lost/found/impounded animals.
“To that end, the existing COH [County of Hawaiʻi] Animal Control services is a functional municipal run division,” Nickerson stated. “Due to gaps in staffing and facilities/equipment that are in disrepair, the current animal control division is not able to operate to its fullest potential. Consideration must be given to providing the new agency with greater infrastructure and support.”
Nickerson also wrote it’s important, as a community, that “we understand the root causes of pet relinquishment and abandonment.”
“Those root causes can include lack of access to affordable pet-friendly housing, financial hardships, and the overall understanding of the purpose/value of companion animals,” Nickerson said. “Our community is struggling with regard to pet ownership, but the responsibility to develop solutions to historical issues does not fall to one singular entity such as COH Animal Control or HIHS.
“In order to combat the unending deluge of unwanted animals entering the shelter systems on island, it is critical that the County of Hawaiʻi give time and attention to updating laws and establishing ordinances.”
After Bill 22 is discussed during the County Council committee meeting Tuesday, Kimball hopes to formally present the bill to the council for a first reading on Feb. 21.
If the bill passes, Kimball said the agency would be included in the 2023-24 fiscal year budget. When this budget passes, the agency could officially start on July 1.
“The first step will be to recruit and hire the administrator,” Kimball said. “In the meantime, council member Evans and I will continue to work with the administration and members of the community to evaluate amendments to chapter 4 and any additional legislation that might be needed to support the work of the agency.”
Kimball said the whole process on how people surrender animals is going to be evaluated as part of the next step if the bill passes.
The funding for animal control is already appropriated in the budget through the Hawaiʻi Police Department, including salary wages for employees. Kimball said there may be some additional things to add to the budget once the agency is created.