Merced chief explains policy on euthanizing dogs

09/16/2013 5:39 PM

09/16/2013 5:39 PM

There are a number of misconceptions and untruths circulating regarding the Merced Police Department and its policy toward the treatment of fatally injured animals.

Last week, there was a story in the daily newspaper that fanned the flames of public indignation. It implied that the department regularly disposes of injured dogs at the police shooting range with careless disregard for compassion and the law.

First, some background on the case mentioned in the media: The incident was first reported in early June when officers responded to a complaint from Mira Court residents. A dog was on the loose, chasing neighborhood children and barking and growling at them.

When an officer found the female pit bull that sparked the call, she charged him and he shot the dog once in the shoulder. Three neighbors who witnessed the incident said the dog appeared to be vicious.

The dog was turned over to the owners who later brought the paralyzed animal to the police station. They said they couldn’t afford veterinary fees for the suffering dog and asked officers to put down the animal. Empathic officers and a supervisor agreed, and the dog was taken to the shooting range where the animal could be safely put down. The city’s animal control officer has the state-required training to put animals to sleep by injection but was off-duty. She has put down two animals this year.

The department regularly takes stray animals to the county shelter and injured ones to the vet, even after hours.

All those details were left out of the story.

The officers followed the guidelines within the California Penal Code section 597.1e:

“… Any peace officer, humane society officer, or any animal control officer may, with the approval of his or her immediate superior, humanely destroy any stray or abandoned animal in the field in any case where the animal is too severely injured to move or where a veterinarian is not available and it would be more humane to euthanize the animal.”

In the officers’ judgment, the best course of action after the owners left the dog at the police station was to quickly euthanize the pit bull at Gove Road.

The department does not take its responsibility lightly. The Merced Police Department has had canines on the force for more than two decades. Many of our officers and staff have pet dogs at home. Contrary to what some critics may say, officers do not relish the idea of having to put down a dog and do not take a cavalier attitude toward that.

Putting dogs down is rare in the city, and the use of the shooting range even more exceptional. It is done only when the animal is severely injured and the animal control officer is not available. The range provides safety for the officer and the public.

My officers don’t like to do this, but they also don’t like to see an animal in pain and agony. They acted in the best interests of the dog to quickly put it out of its misery.

People talk about alternatives and there are. But they all cost money, and this is a department that is still 23 officers down from where it was in 2008. The department spent $85,686 last year for drop off, euthanasia, disposal and other services from Merced County Animal Control, and that doesn’t include the city animal control officers’ salaries. Another $1,500 was paid for vet services. That’s getting close to the salary of another police officer and the $26,000 a year collected in dog licenses doesn’t come close to offsetting the costs.

The city has a problem with dogs on the loose. The City Council hears about the packs in calls from constituents and heard about the issue at its town-hall meetings. People told stories of packs of dogs chasing them into their homes and threatening their children playing outside. Merced isn’t alone in the problem and has joined forces with other cities to conduct sweeps in an attempt to clear the streets of the threat.

Some of the dogs are wild, some get loose, and some are just not regulated by their owners. The owner of the pit bull insisted she never charged at people. That dog was not on a leash and was not enclosed by a fence.

Even the neighbors who said they didn’t have problems with that dog described her as “usually very nonaggressive.” For the officer who faced the charging pit bull, the key word was “usually.”

People taking responsibility for their actions is the real solution to most policing problems, and that includes responsible pet ownership. But the number of dogs running loose on the streets indicates it isn’t going to happen soon.

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