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St. Louis County Exec Race Goes To The Dogs

Steve Stenger

(Updated 3:25 p.m. Wed., April 30)

To hear St. Louis County Councilman Steve Stenger tell it, County Executive Charlie Dooley is responsible for the deaths of thousands of dogs and cats each year at the county’s animal shelter.

“The killing has got to stop,’’ Stenger said at a news conference Tuesday where he distributed county figures showing that nearly 60 percent of the animals that end up at the shelter each year were being euthanized. In 2013, that amounted to 4,364 dogs and cats.

Stenger, who is challenging Dooley in the August Democratic primary, asserted that Dooley has misled the public because of promises that the euthanization rate would drop with the construction a couple years ago of a new county animal shelter that was supposed to encourage more animal adoptions.

Instead, the percentage has remained roughly the same, said Stenger. He said that Dooley shares the blame because the shelter is run by the county Health Department.  Department director Dolores Gunn is a Dooley appointee.

“This is the result of sheer mismanagement over the past 10 years,” said Stenger. “We want to think of ourselves as a humane county and a county that is going to do the right thing with taxpayer dollars. This is a situation where clearly that’s not happening.”

But Dooley's campaign asserted that Stenger was being disingenuous, unfair and inaccurate.  “It looks like silly season has come early,” Dooley’s campaign said. “We don’t think Steve Stenger should use public health programs for his own political benefit. If he was truly concerned about the county’s animal control policy, he should have voiced his concern in 2012 when he was given a detailed formal update."

Stenger, who has been on the council since 2009, said he had only recently become aware of how the shelter was operated and that he planned to file a ordinance mandating some changes.

Among other things, he is advocating:

  • Partnering with area nonprofit groups to promote animal adoption;
  • Expanding the county’s spay and neutering program, which subsidizes the costs for pet owners;
  • Increasing the hours of operation at the shelter, which is now closed in the evening.  Stenger is calling for extended public hours on Saturday, and some open hours on Sunday, when the shelter now is closed.

Stenger said that it would be cheaper for the county shelter to focus more on finding new homes for the animals and less on euthanizing them.  “When you think about the staff time it takes to actually euthanize the animals...if the animals were not being killed, that’s less staff that’s being used to kill the animals,’’ he said, adding those employees then could be diverted to other more constructive jobs.
Dooley later put out a more detailed statement defending and detailing the shelter’s operations.

“Mr. Stenger’s statement that St. Louis County is euthanizing animals because we are ‘seriously underutilizing’ space at the new animal center is simply not true,” Dooley said in a statement. "The number of animals put down due to lack of space is now zero. The only reason an animal is euthanized is for public safety reasons, mostly behavior-based; humane reasons, animal is at the end of life; or to protect public safety, animal has an illness or infectious disease.”

But Stenger emphasized in an interview that the euthanization issue was part of his broader complaint about the Health Department and Dooley’s administration.  The Health Department has come under fire in recent months for unrelated matters -- most notably, the apparent embezzlement of county money by a high-ranking department employee who committed suicide just as an internal probe got underway.

Stenger added that he was motivated by his love of animals, not politics.  He and his wife own three dogs -- one of them, Lucy, is part Corgi. Stenger said he rescued the dog while in Rolla, Mo. on business. A farmer was preparing to kill the dog, which had strayed on his property.  The farmer told Stenger of his plans. "I said, 'I'll take her' and tossed her into the back seat,'' Stenger recalled.

Stenger and his wife brought Lucy to the news conference, in part, to illustrate his point that unwanted stray animals can be successfully adopted.

On Wednesday, county Health Department director Gunn defended the shelter's procedures, and cited its numerous honors from animal welfare groups.

“Several news stories have raised questions about our Animal Care and Control Program, but by any indicator you use, we are operating one of the finest animal care organizations in the area," Gunn said. "We are also part of a large regional coalition of animal welfare organizations that includes the Humane Society of Missouri and the Animal Protective Association of Missouri and work with over 90 local rescue groups to promote animal adoption.”

She added that in 2012, "the Missouri Animal Control Association recognized St. Louis County’s animal care and control program for being the 'Outstanding Animal Welfare Agency' of the year.  Also in 2012, Purina accepted the county program into its 'Purina Shelter Program' – the only government-run shelter in the nation to be so honored – and cited its programmatic improvements as the reason for its inclusion."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.