Ascension considers cutting shelter

The Ascension Parish Animal Control Center could be shuttered if parish officials determine they can’t continue to swallow nearly $200,000 in deficit costs each year.

The parish operates the control center, formerly known as the Ascension Parish Animal Shelter, 9894 Airline Highway, in Sorrento, with a six-person staff on call 24 hours a day to pick up aggressive and injured animals throughout the parish. The shelter also accepts relinquished animals brought in by residents of both Ascension and St. James parishes.

All of that may change soon, though.

The parish council’s Strategic Planning Committee is considering whether to continue funding the shelter, which operates at a deficit of approximately $177,000 each year, parish officials said.

The annual $400,000 operation is funded primarily through the parish’s general fund as well as some service fees.

There are two options before the committee: Continue to operate at a deficit with no dedicated funding for the control center or shutter the center, slash staff and go back to how the parish operated prior to the control center’s opening in 2002, by just enforcing the parish’s vicious animals ordinance.

Thomas “Moose” Pearce, chief executive assistant to Parish President Tommy Martinez, said the second option would allow for two animal control officers to pick up vicious animals in the parish. A vicious animal is defined by the parish as “a cat or dog which has demonstrated a propensity to bite or attempt to bite humans, or which causes reasonable fear or bodily injury by attacking or threatening to attack a person, except when such person may be in the act of unlawfully trespassing upon private property of the owner.”

The option would eliminate nearly all of the projected deficit, but it also would no longer provide services to municipalities in the parish or neighboring St. James Parish. It also wouldn’t allow for the housing and adoption of animals that are picked up off the street or turned over to the control center.

That’s an option not likely to go over well with the animal advocates who worked diligently more than a decade ago to get the control center opened.

“This would be a step backwards in terms from a community perspective,” said Cindy Peterson, who operates Hokie’s Hounds, a beagle rescue shelter in Prairieville. “To not offer a municipal animal shelter facility is a step back in time.”

Peterson said shuttering the animal control center would be “detrimental” to the community. Overpopulation of stray dogs and cats would be a very real problem, and she said it’s not an exaggeration to think that dead animal carcasses would litter the parish.

“This community has made a lot of progress in terms of its thinking that this parish is not as rural as it once was,” she said.

Mike Leblanc, supervisor of the animal control center, said the center took in about 3,600 animals last year. About 960 of those were pickups by animal control officers, but the other 2,640 animals were surrendered to the parish.

Only 325 of those animals were adopted; the remaining animals, about 3,275, were euthanized because of health conditions or aggressiveness, he said.

Leblanc echoed Peterson’s concerns about overpopulation, telling council members at the committee’s February meeting that without the animal control center, “the parish would be overrun by cats and dogs in just a matter of no time whatsoever.”

Yet, several council members said they thought closing the center was in the best interest of the parish.

“I don’t know if we can continue to operate this at this point,” Councilman Benny Johnson said at the meeting.

Councilman Dempsey Lambert, however, was adamantly opposed to closing the shelter.

“We’re gonna have to dig deep and find the extra funding because we will have more complaints on dogs and cats than we have on transportation and sewer,” he said.

The Strategic Planning Committee will take up the topic again at its next meeting March 11 and is expected to make a recommendation to the full council at that time.

Martinez said the parish’s municipalities would like to see the shelter remain open, and council members said they might need to charge extra for pickups in order to make ends meet.

“If they don’t want to deal with it, they’re going to have to deal with their problem,” Councilman Daniel “Doc” Saterlee said.

Peterson said going back to the old way of doing business is not acceptable. The parish needs to provide a full-service shelter that humanely euthanizes wild animals, gets strays off the street, allows for adoptable pets to find good homes and reunites lost animals with their loved ones.

“They’ve got to find some kind of funding to have a working shelter that encompasses everything,” she said.