The Howard County Council is considering legislation to establish a license for privately run domestic animal shelters.

The new license would improve the Animal Control Division’s ability to inspect facilities and ensure animals are cared for properly.

While shelter and care providers think inspections are a good idea in general, some say that even a modest license fee could cause a financial burden for their operations. They also question the bill’s reach and the appropriateness of proposed regulations for certain small animals.

Lisa Myers, Howard County chief of police, provided a letter of testimony to the County Executive’s Chief Administrative Officer in December 2020 detailing the need for the new license.

The Animal Control Division can only inspect private shelters when and if they receive citizen complaints, Myers said, which can prevent or delay intervention to correct substandard conditions and allow them to deteriorate to conditions of extreme cruelty.

“Situations such as this have resulted in a large and sudden impound of animals in poor physical and mental condition,” Myers said, exhausting Animal Control resources. “The costs to the county are in the thousands of dollars.”

A January 2020 complaint against Pinky’s Playhouse, a cat welfare organization, resulted in multiple cruelty violation and a May 2019 warrant executed at the Animal Welfare Society of Howard County resulted in the impoundment of 165 animals.

Small Fee

Myers is recommending a nonrefundable $50 application fee and a $50 annual license fee, both of which would likely be waived in the program’s first year.

Given the county’s small number of private shelters, the fees are not intended to raise revenue but rather offset the costs of administering the license program.

“The forgone fee revenue in the first year is about $1,000,” Myers said. “We expect the license fee in subsequent years to generate about $500 annually [and] anticipate handling inspection services with existing personnel.”

While $50 isn’t much, it’s enough to constitute a hardship for Animal Safe Haven & Adoptions (ASHA) in Columbia.

“Our budget and the shelters we partner with operate with very thin margins, if not negative margins, with volunteers sometimes using their own money to provide care for the animals,” said Jessica Kratz, ASHA’s founder and president. “It costs $50 to $80 just for one emergency room visit.”

“I don’t think it’s a legislative problem, I think it’s an enforcement problem,” said Tabitha Drum, ASHA’s vice president.

Aside from struggling operationally to facilitate adoptions and find foster homes, Kratz said ASHA also provides services to fill in some gaps that Animal Control does not cover, which includes controlling feral cat populations throughout the county.

“Howard County does not have any legislation that addresses feral cat colonies,” she said.

Rules Questioned

The new legislation prohibits shelters from accepting strays unless the animals are reported to Animal Control, scanned for microchips, and held for 30 days before release for adoption.

“Very few rabbits are microchipped, so we can’t be expected to comply with that,” said Mara Hurwitt, vice president of Friends of Rabbits, which operates a residential shelter in Columbia.

She also said that sanitation practices and animal enclosures specifically addressed in the legislation are primarily dog specific and don’t make sense for herbivorous small animals like rabbits.

“Right now, it’s too soon to clearly say if we’ll be affected,” said Peggy Stover-Catha, director of Frisky’s Wildlife & Primate Sanctuary in Woodstock. “We don’t take dogs or cats but we do have some farm animals so I’m looking at some of the rules to see how broad the regulations are. I think some management of those kinds of facilities is good, as long as they don’t make it too burdensome that it creates a problem with the good they do for animals that otherwise would be euthanized.”

Laurie Wallace, president of Animal Advocates of Howard County, said the bill is long overdue and should have the support of all reputable shelters

“The bill spells out minimum standards and is in line with state municipal shelter standards,” Wallace said, with the added oversight providing a legitimate means to address concerns with the way animals are housed and treated in the county.

“The fact that [disreputable] shelters have been allowed to operate unimpeded hurts not only the animals in their care but risks eroding public trust in all shelters, even the ethical ones,” she said. “It’s a win for everybody except the bad guys.”

Still, Kratz said the paperwork adds another layer of frustrations that reputable shelters and rescue operations need to deal with.

“We don’t know how it’s going to affect us because we’re a foster system and not a shelter,” she said. “Will I have to give out a foster’s information? I want to say it’s a good thing to increase the ability to inspect, but they should already have that ability. It’s conflicting and a struggle, we’re trying to do right by the animal and ensure the letter of the law is followed.”