Animal control, animal shelter. Pet overpopulation, low cost spay/neuter. Temperament testing and adoption. “No-kill” and euthanasia. Backyard breeders and breed rescue.

Do you have a pet, have you had a pet, or will you ever have a pet?    Have you ever called Animal Control to pick up a stray in your neighborhood?  Has your own pet ever gotten lost? Where did you happen to get that pet? Have you taken care of having it spayed or neutered? Have you ever been frightened by an aggressive or untrained dog?

These aren’t just “animal” issues, they are social issues, and we live with the consequences of our policies every day. It’s just not often that we take a hard look at what we are doing and not doing.

The social issues that concern homeless animals are going to be news in Oak Park in the near future. Oak Park is working towards building an animal shelter. Our own Senator Don Harmon is sponsoring a low cost spay/neuter bill in Springfield. The Animal Care League on Garfield Street in South Oak Park is approaching its goal of 500 adoptions for the year 2004. With so much happening regarding homeless animals in Oak Park, this might be a good time to start looking at the issues.

Let’s start the conversation with a look at Oak Park Animal Control (OPAC), which is usually the first contact a stray or unwanted animal has with the “system.” Animal Control exists primarily to enforce local ordinances regarding keeping stray animals off the streets, following up on complaints of animal mistreatment, and licensing pets.

Last year, 414 animals were handled by Oak Park Animal Control. A few of these animals were surrendered by their owners to OPAC, but most were picked up from the streets. Where do these animals come from?

John Hayley, OPAC supervisor, says that some of them are “dumped” by irresponsible owners, some of the animals migrate from other communities, and some just managed to get out of the yard. This last group is lucky, as they are usually quickly reclaimed by their owners.

While animals are in the custody of OPAC, they are housed at Hanover Animal Wellness Center on Franklin Street in Forest Park, but this is a temporary arrangement. Hanover was not designed to hold a large number of animals for any appreciable length of time, and it cannot provide for the amount of socializing and human contact that companion animals need to stay at their most adoptable. A volunteer program was recently initiated to help in this regard, but it is currently quite limited in scope. Everyone involved agrees that more space, more people, and more resources are desirable in order to give the animals their best shot at a second chance at life.

Giving the animals this chance is how Officer Hayley spends a large amount of his time on the job. After waiting three days to see if an animal is reclaimed by an owner, he and his staff work diligently to find a placement for the animals in their custody. First they advertise the animals within Oak Park. The animals’ pictures are posted in Village Hall and broadcast on Channel 6, and the WEDNESDAY JOURNAL features a picture of one of the animals each week in the EXPRESS! section.

Plans are also in the works to list the animals on the popular website. Due to these efforts, some of the animals are adopted straight from OPAC. Most, however, require additional effort. Through the networking Animal Control does with humane societies, breed rescues, and animal shelters (often Oak Park’s own Animal Care League), many of the animals go to another facility to await adoption. He says that other organizations are frequently willing to help with Oak Park animals, because OPAC delivers their animals “adoption ready,” meaning that they’ve been spayed or neutered, and have received their inoculations if the shelter cannot provide these services.

Sometimes, however, usually due to terminal illness or temperament, no other arrangement is possible, and euthanasia is necessary. This decision is made by the consulting veterinarian and the Village Public Health Director, with input from staff and animal behaviorists. Many animal advocates familiar with the shelter adoption process would like to see temperament testing added to the services provided by animal control, as it helps to prevent the adoption of unsuitable animals.

So what is the status of animal control in Oak Park? Numbers-wise, it’s hugely improved. Officer Hayley remembers years when up to 1,200 animals went through OPAC. Results-wise, it is impressive, with over 90 percent of animals moving along to another placement, either through adoption or relocating to another facility.

Facilities-wise? The village is in the midst of studying the feasibility of building an animal shelter. The village board recently established a Shelter Advisory Committee for the purpose of advising the board about shelter capacity needs, location possibilities, funding options, and volunteer participation. Officer Hayley would like to see a multi-use animal control/animal shelter facility that would be safe and comfortable for the animals and welcoming to the public. This type of arrangement would encourage adoption from OPAC, thereby reducing the need to send animals to other organizations. That’s important to many people involved in animal care, because every animal sent out takes the place of another impounded animal who needs a place to go, and whose time may be running out. Oak Park is only a few miles away from Chicago Animal Care and Control at 27th and Western, which takes in about 30,000 animals a year, and has to euthanize about 20,000 of them for space.

Which brings us back to the social issues that animals present. Why are there so many homeless animals? What can be done?

First of all, we need to be sure that we are not contributing to the problem. We need to take care of our own pets. Be certain that they are always wearing identification and/or are micro-chipped. Do not allow your animals to roam. Get a license. Make sure your pets are spayed or neutered. Take your dog to school”his best life insurance is making sure that he’s a good citizen and a well-mannered member of the family. And when it comes time to add a pet to the family, please visit a shelter first.

Beyond that, we need to be aware, and to that end, a future article will follow an animal from OPAC to the Animal Care League. Watch for it and learn why animal shelters are community treasures whose employees qualify for sainthood.   

Oak Parker Kathy Capone is a former Chicago high school teacher who now primarily volunteers for animal and education causes. It was a letter in WEDNESDAY JOURNAL that brought her to the Forest Park Ark four years ago. She’s now on the Board of Directors for the Animal Care League, and on the Citizens Task Force working for an animal shelter in Oak Park.

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