Ledger reveals depth of dog tax violations

THURSDAY, DEC. 2, 2010

Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service director Nancy Hill estimates that only 41 percent of dog owners and a skimpy 15 percent of cat ow ners license their pets. This is not a new problem, as a look at the Spokane County “dog tax” rolls from the early 1920s shows.

Some very old record books were found in a county warehouse in 2001, and Hill keeps them in her office. Each book was painstakingly handwritten with the name of every dog owner in the county and whether they had paid their tax of $1 per dog (it was $2.50 for unspayed female dogs). Addresses were limited, sometimes with only the town or street listed. The dog’s breed was listed, with frequent notations of “cur” or “mongrel.”

The 1922 ledger was littered with explanations that the dog had “strayed away,” the owners had moved, the dog had been hit by a car or that residents claim they had no dog. “That’s universal,” said Hill. “We still hear that.”

Tucked in the pages of the old books are a few yellowed letters. One dated Aug. 30, 1932 is signed by Sheriff G.G. Miles. “I wish to advise you that your name with others has been certified to this office by the County Treasurer as being delinquent since August 1st in the payment of your dog tax for 1932,” it reads. “This is probably due to a misunderstanding or oversight on your part.”

A letter addressed to the same sheriff offers an excuse as to why the tax was not paid. “This is to say that we will send the dollar just as soon as we possibly can, we are finding it pretty tough to get eats like everybody else these days,” said the author, who’s signature is unreadable. “I hope it will be satisfactory about the dollar we will pay that certainly only we have not got it at the present.”

A short, undated note to Sheriff Miles reads “Cannot pay it before 20th October. Am down and out for want of money.”

Hill has been trying to convince people for years that licensing pets is vitally important. “First of all, it’s the law,” she said. But perhaps most importantly a licensed pet is more easily returned to its owner, whether it’s by the shelter or by a resident who finds the animal. “It’s the pet’s phone call home,” she said.

A licensed, found pet may not even have to go to the shelter at all since SCRAPS employees can look up the owner’s information and pass it along to someone who has found a missing pet. “It reduces overcrowding in shelters,” Hill said. “Licensed pets can save other pets’ lives because it creates more room at the inn.”

The simple fact is that licensing a pet can save its life if it is lost. So far this year SCRAPS has taken in 2,412 dogs, 3,181 cats and 484 feral cats. “Usually a licensed dog is one we’re not going to see in here,” she said. “We do get cats with licenses, but it’s pretty rare.”

Dogs without a license or microchip are held for three business days before being put up for adoption. Cats without identification are not held at all. They are immediately put up for adoption and could be transferred to another agency or a rescue group. In extreme cases they could be put down if there’s no room. “There’s just the sheer number of cats,” Hill said. “It’s space and temperament and health dependent. We don’t usually euthanize cats the first day, but it could happen.”

If an unidentified animal has a major health issue it could also be euthanized simply because the shelter doesn’t have the money to pay for expensive vet care. “We can only do so much,” she said.

Cost is often an issue for the shelter. License fees provide about half the shelter’s $1.1 million general fund budget. Eighty percent of that pays for the salaries of 16 full-time employees and a handful of part-time employees. To help balance the books the shelter relies heavily on 50 active volunteers and community donations. “We get all our food donated right now,” she said. “The public is amazing.”

That’s not to say Hill hasn’t done a little dreaming about what she would do with the money if all residents suddenly decided to license their pets. The shelter, which currently serves all of Spokane County except the city of Spokane, needs a bigger building. Hill could expand her public education program and hire trainers to help make dogs more adoptable. She’s been trying to get in-vehicle laptops for animal control officers so they can have easy access to information about dogs they may come across. There’s also the option of opening more off-leash dog parks.

“I’d like to have my own in-house vet,” she said. “I’ve got a pretty big dream list.”

The shelter does have some power to force people to license all pets over the age of six months as required. Violators can receive a $200 infraction. “It’s like a traffic ticket,” she said. “We write them every week.”

Animal control officers don’t have time to patrol for offenders, but they will take action when they come across unlicensed pets when they respond to calls. The pet owner is given a chance to license their pet within a few days. If that time expires with no action, the citation is written. Pet owners are also not allowed to pick up lost pets at the shelter without first buying a license.

History shows full compliance with the licensing laws may be unrealistic. Hill said the shelter has seen limited success with canvassing neighborhoods and putting out door hangers with information. “Nothing is really convincing everyone that they need to license their pets,” she said. “It’s the responsible thing to do. It’s important.”

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