Confusion, Concerns Surround Response to County’s Dangerous Dogs

A partnership problem, or not?

Three of the dogs found by a jury to be responsible for the 2016 death of Erin Cleskey. They were euthanized earlier this year. (Courtesy of City of Austin)

Last December, toward the end of a daylong meeting of Travis County Commissioners, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt voiced concerns suggesting that the county-city animal control program might be on thin ice. The dais was discussing whether to move wildlife issues to be under Austin's Animal Services Office ("County Kills Coyote Contract," Dec. 8, 2017), which has provided the county with spay and neuter, vaccination, sheltering, and animal control services since 1985. The two jurisdictions have long enjoyed a collaborative relationship, as evidenced by seven such interlocal agreements to exchange resources and capabilities.

But Eckhardt blindsided ASO staff when she said she was hesitant to expand the 33-year relationship. "I will be completely frank with you," she said, "I am not satisfied with the level of coverage and response under our agreement with the city with regard to dangerous dogs countywide." The county judge mentioned a news story from two years ago where a neighbor of the man whose dogs killed mail server Erin McCleskey claimed that he had called 911 when the same dogs attacked his dog and received no response. She went on to say it was "highly probable" the county would not receive adequate response by the city to wildlife issues. (Eckhardt also told the Chronicle she has received constituent complaints of slow or no response in areas outside of Austin.)

State law considers dogs to be dangerous only when they attack a human.

"We were very surprised," said Mark Sloat, ASO's program manager. "We've had this contract for some time and we've never had anybody voice concerns with our response to calls or response time to calls. It hit us out of the blue."

Interim Chief Animal Services Officer Lee Ann Shenefiel sought to discuss the issue further, and on Dec. 15 sent a letter to the county, which was read aloud at the commissioners' meeting on March 6. Shen­e­fiel explained that all dangerous dog 911 calls outside Austin are first responded to by the Travis County Sheriff's Office, not ASO, and that the County Attorney's Office told ASO it can't prosecute cases where a dog attacks an animal, as in Eckhardt's cited example. Shenefiel also noted that the city has no records for the specific address where the mauling occurred nor service calls from that street for "the dogs or dogs resembling the dogs" implicated in the woman's death.

TCSO spokesperson Kristen Dark later explained that when a deputy responds to a dangerous dog call, he or she assesses the specific situation and calls ASO for assistance if needed. ASO then investigates all dog-on-human attacks and sends these cases to the county attorney for prosecution. When a dog attacks another animal, TCSO and ASO both said they still respond. But little can be done in the county because state law considers dogs to be dangerous only when they attack a human. (Austin, on the other hand, can enforce its own ordinances and does consider dogs that attack animals to be vicious.) Sharon Talley, director of the County Attorney's Office Civil Enforcement Division, explained that the county had prosecuted dog-on-animal cases, but stopped after being sued in 2015 for rewriting its code to go beyond state statute. "Since we are a county," Talley said, "our authority is specifically limited to authority that is granted to us by the Legislature."

Dark wouldn't say if TCSO has had any issues with ASO's response times. "I don't think it's the right way for us to talk about each other. If we're having a problem with how things are going with each other, we'll sit down and work it out." The Animal Advisory Commission, which advises both the city and the county, said ASO does "amazing" work despite being understaffed and underfunded. "We continue to be disturbed by Judge Eckhardt's reckless statement," said chair David Lundstedt. "We are also hopeful that this incident will lead to dialogue and better cooperation moving forward."

Eckhardt and the rest of the dais quickly approved the larger ASO contract as a consent item two weeks after the dangerous dogs discussion. Sloat noted that ASO has since been in "constant contact" with the county, which is requesting data on their operations outside Austin city limits. Where Eckhardt has said the county needs improved documentation of ASO's performance, Sloat hopes the increased communication also will lead to a broader understanding of the various parties' roles in handling dangerous dogs and that any issues are brought to ASO's attention quickly.

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