A group of dog lovers is circulating a ballot initiative that would change the way the Summit County Animal Control center in Akron operates.
Organizers of the effort say they’ve collected more than 10% of the 22,000 valid signatures they need to get the measure on November’s ballot.
If they do get enough signatures, and voters pass the initiative, the new law would formalize procedures at the facility and subject it to an annual, independent review by an animal care expert not affiliated with the county.
More: Summit County Animal Control adds evening, weekend hours, microchipping
Cathy Soles, a former volunteer at the Opportunity Parkway center who is collecting signatures for the initiative, said in a recent phone interview she is concerned that animals there aren’t getting the care and attention they need to thrive.
Soles said that more than three years after COVID-19 restrictions limited public access to the animals — primarily cats and dogs — housed at the center, it continues to operate with a pandemic mentality.
Slow pace of change at animal control
“When the governor opened the state, they remained closed to the public and volunteers,” Soles said in a March 22 phone interview.
At the time, the center kept limited public hours from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“With the restricted hours, that doesn’t allow for the working people to go in and adopt a dog,” she said.
Since that interview, the center has expanded its hours to 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, with limited hours on Saturday and Sunday.
More: Summit County creating new animal control volunteer program to address previous problems
Soles said on Thursday the expanded hours are an improvement, but they don’t address primary issues affecting public and volunteer access. Key among those issues, Soles said, is the post-COVID dog adoption procedure.
An online-dating approach to dog adoption
Adoptions at the animal control center have become a pick-and-choose process that could have been inspired by Tinder. Prospective dog owners select a match from dog photos with brief bios. If the prospective adopter likes a profile, an animal control employee will bring the dog out for interaction.
“You can pick … dogs off the window and they will show you … dogs,” Soles said. “You can’t go in and see if the sad one in the corner is the one you want. You have to go by a picture and a bio.”
Even if the initiative gets to the ballot in November and is passed by voters, it would not force a change to that procedure. And the county is not inclined to change it on its own.
“We found that it keeps the kennel calmer,” said Greta Johnson, director of communications and assistant chief of staff in the office of Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro. “It keeps folks focused on the dog they want to see. Folks treated it like a zoo, sometimes.”
Under the kennel-viewing procedure, Johnson said, dogs could become agitated by their human visitors, with frequent barking likely. The new procedure helps both the dogs and their caretakers, she said.
“The health and welfare of the dogs appear to have improved …,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure visitors are safe and our staff are safe.”
Former volunteers upset about policies
The ballot initiative is led by many former volunteers who feel shut out from the center under the new procedures.
Jody Owen, a Fairlawn resident who is helping to gather signatures for the ballot initiative, said the viewing policy goes beyond the adoption process, limiting dog owners from finding their lost pets.
She has volunteered at shelters, but not the Summit County center, she said.
“If my dog was down there chipped and I didn’t find out for five days …,” she said. “I’d be devastated (by) the fact that I can’t go see if my dog is there or go walk the kennel.”
More: Volunteers question why they’re not allowed back at Summit County Animal Control
To expedite the reunion process, Owen said microchipped dogs could be scanned when they arrive at the center. With the dog owner’s name and contact information available, the owners could be alerted immediately.
Soles and Owen both said they are frustrated by the center’s approach to volunteers, which has become carefully regulated. The county has implemented a robust registration and training program, available at https://summitanimalcontrol.galaxydigital.com/need/.
Johnson said the county examined what other county animal control facilities were doing with volunteers as it prepared for its post-pandemic operations.
“We were the only one that did not have an education and training (program) in place,” she said.
The new online training program will be supplemented by a volunteer coordinator the county contracted with.
“She will help manage the training of the volunteers,” Johnson said. “… She will be providing additional in-person training.”
Owen said she understands the need for training, but is concerned the requirements might prove restrictive.
“They are requiring … 40 hours,” she said. “They are making it so we could not get in the door.”
In addition to the adoption and volunteer policies, Soles said access to the center has been limited for law enforcement officers who find lost dogs. In the past, Soles said, officers were able to gain after-hours entry for dogs they scoop up overnight.
That access, she said, is no longer available.
Johnson said there are good reasons for the change. The vast majority of strays accepted at the facility are caught in Akron. The county’s contract with the city allows it to reject animals when the center is at capacity.
“Ninety-five percent of the dogs we take are from the city of Akron,” Johnson said. “The contract is very clear that when we don’t have any more space, we don’t have to take their animals.”
By law, the center is only required to take animals from townships in the county. It’s not even required to take cats, Johnson said.
“We have absolutely no obligation to take cats,” Johnson said. “That’s the result of us trying to do the right thing.”
Akron does not currently operate an animal control facility. The county animal control center has room for about 100 dogs. When quarantine of the dogs is required for health or legal reasons — dog bite or attack cases — that number is reduced.
And Johnson said the match-and-meet procedure has helped with dog retention as fewer new owners are returning their pets.
“We have seen a significant reduction in returns using this policy,” Johnson said.
Keeping dogs and their humans together is something the county is focusing on. It has expanded distributions of free dog food, opened a Community Pet Food Pantry, and distributed about 115,000 pounds of food, litter and supplies to rescues and the public.
On the last Tuesday of each month, pet supplies are given away at the center on Opportunity Parkway from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
“We had hundreds at the last event,” Johnson said.
Behind closed doors
Soles and Owen say their petition is driven by the need for significant changes at the center and brings accountability through reporting requirements and an annual evaluation.
Until those reforms are accomplished, the petition efforts will continue, said Owens. If the group can’t collect the signatures they need this time around, it will try again at the earliest opportunity, she said.
Soles has been attending ward and council meetings in an effort to spread awareness. She has also planned events related to the petition drive in New Franklin, Springfield Township and Ellet.
“The fight started for us in June of 2021 when the Governor opened the state and SCAC refused to open,” she said in an email. “All the animals throughout that time and to date have suffered extensive hours of solitary confinement without adequate enrichment, exercise, and human contact. … We are continuing our efforts to get the ordinance on the ballot so that an Executive of our county can never do this to animals in our community again.”
To learn more about the petition, go to www.savesummitstrays.com/how-to-sign.
Owen said the petition would prevent the center from restricting operations in the future.
“Why did it last almost two years when the rest of government was open?” she said. “Literally, they had one person go down and feed them a day.”
Soles said keeping the public from viewing the caged dogs in their daily environment removes an important component of accountability.
“For transparency, the public should be allowed access,” she said. “It’s behind closed doors, and nobody knows how well it’s working.”
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