BAXTER-During a workshop session this week the Baxter City Council heard a request to amend the city's animal ordinance to include cats.

Baxter's animal control ordinance is strictly for dogs.

At issue is the number of stray or abandoned cats coming to the animal shelter. The shelter currently has the responsibility for those costs. Chief Jim Exsted noted in a written report and in speaking to the council, that if the ordinance was amended, the city would then be responsible to compensate HART for cats impounded from the city.

"As it currently sits, our department and animal control do not respond to calls regarding cats. Individuals are advised that the city does not have an ordinance covering cats," Exsted reported. "We don't specifically refer these individuals to HART but should they ask, our officers have been advised in the past to tell the inquiring parties that HART would be a possible solution. We also explain to the individuals that they may be responsible for costs associated with placing the animal at the shelter."

Since the police department hasn't kept a log of those type of calls, Exsted said he had no way to determine how many of those calls are typical in a given year.

Figures provided to the city by HART indicate the number of cats being dropped off at the nonprofit animal shelter is steadily increasing. When an animal is dropped off at HART, the individuals are asked where the animal was found. Using that honor system, HART reports the number of cats brought in from Baxter include:

  • 31 cats in 2013;
  • 71 in 2014;
  • 69 in 2015;
  • 82 in 2016.

Exsted noted the numbers average to 63 cats per year. Considering the trend to increase, Exsted said it's a safe assumption the actual number of cats taken to HART from Baxter will be closer to 75 to 80 in 2017.

The cost per impounded cat per day is $16. The city would be responsible for the first seven days, or $112 per cat. Exsted noted HART reported almost all impounded cats will stay beyond

the seven days. On its website, HART describes itself as a low-kill shelter saying it does all it can to place "adoptable" animals and reports there isn't a time limit on stays and adoptable animals are not euthanized to make room for another animal.

Donna Wambeke, HART executive director, said in a few hours the shelter recently took in as many as 10 cats from Baxter. She said the cat population has just boomed with hundreds of cats brought to the shelter this year.

It's a real problem and a real burden, Wambeke told the council. She said the facility is licensed for 48 cats. Wambeke recounted stories of people dropping off cats at HART's door, noting a woman came in with a crateful of kittens and said she'd take them home only to find the kittens on the sidewalk outside the HART building a short time later.

Wambeke said HART's mission as a nonprofit humane society involves working with the public on education, taking in animals in the shelter and finding adoptions for them.

"Is it our sole responsibility to take care of these animals in this community? No, we just can't," Wambeke said.

She said the animal overpopulation and strays are a community problem and HART has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars cleaning up the community's problem. There are a few people who come to claim their cats, but a majority don't, Wambeke said.

She said the only public funding HART receives is from the municipalities paying for impound services. No appropriations come from Crow Wing County, Wambeke said, noting by state statute the county can appropriate $2,000 annually.

"It's been many years since we've gotten that." Wambeke said.

Wambeke tried to address the Crow Wing County Board about the issue but was told by Tim Houle, county administrator, that Doug Houge, board chairman, would not put HART on the agenda to discuss the issue. In a reader opinion letter in the Dispatch in November, Wambeke thanked the community for assisting HART financially but noted roadblocks with local government, specifically Crow Wing County.

Mayor Darrel Olson said he shared Wambeke's feelings and comments about the county not participating, noting Baxter shares a jurisdictional border with Unorganized Territory, which falls under the county's responsibility.

"At least you guys will talk to me," Wambeke said.

She said it's an issue where everybody has to do a little part of it.

Wambeke used an example of picking up garbage in communities, even as she said she didn't like to refer to the animals like that but it was still about cleaning things up.

Council member Todd Holman said he was trying to think of a longer sustainable funding source and was concerned with the equity issue, adding there should be a way to have a memoranda of understanding so everyone was pitching in as a public service. "It's beyond your mission," Holman told Wambeke.

Adding cats to the city's animal control responsibility amounts to a 41 percent increase for that budgetary item. The city has a 2017 animal control budget of $20,600 for dogs. Adding cats to the equation means an estimated increase of $8,500.

The city contracts out its animal control enforcement. If the city council votes to make this change, the Baxter Police Department would respond when the contractor was not available and impound cats. As they currently do with dogs, city residents would also be able to take a cat directly to HART and the city would be responsible for the fees.

Holman also cautioned there may be additional costs not yet specifically outlined, such as police officer time and expanding the contract for the animal ordinance.

"Anecdotally I can tell you that we receive very few cat calls directly to our office and in speaking with animal control earlier this week he will tell you the same," Exsted wrote in his report.

Currently HART contracts with 16 jurisdictions in the area for some level of animal control, including the city of Baxter. Six of those jurisdictions have ordinances covering cats-including the cities of Brainerd, Crosby, Garrison, and Chickamaw Beach.

And HART sent letters to all 10 jurisdictions to see if there could be a consideration of adding a cat ordinance.

"The community cat over-population has escalated to an all-time high," HART states on its website. "In the past all stray cats were taken without an appointment, meaning if you found a cat you just brought it to HART. There is literally no more room to house these cats.

"In striving to remain a 'low-kill' shelter HART does not take animals in just to euthanize them. So that is not an option. ... All stray cats will be put on a surrender list. The person that has found the cat will be asked to care for it until then. HART realizes that the person calling does not own the cat but we are at a loss of what else to do. This is a community problem and everyone needs to work together."

The message of everyone working to solve a community issue was the message Wambeke repeated before the council.

"I'll keep at it," she said.

"I appreciate your being here, your tenacity and all your years of service," Olson said, adding the council now has a good start on information and will consider it.

UPDATE: Crow Wing County reports while it doesn't have appropriations for HART as it had in the past, it does provide funding in fees for impounded dogs through an animal control services contract for stray dogs  in Unorganized Territory, which amounts to more than $8,000 annually, including a monthly administrative fee and then $16 per day per dog. Crow Wing County acts as the township board for Unorganized Territory. The county as a whole does not have a dog or a cat ordinance. The county does, by statute, respond to dangerous dogs and has a separate contract with HART to board those dogs.