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St. Paul Animal Control sees opportunity for collaboration

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Molly Lunaris faced a cat crisis: 84 felines, most of them less than a year old, roaming largely unattended in a St. Paul home.

In a different era, the intense animal hoarding might have been handled with back-to-back euthanasias rather than rehousing the cats.

Lunaris, however, approaches her job with a different mindset.

As the director of the St. Paul Animal Control Center by McMurray Fields, the former Washington, D.C.-area schoolteacher has cultivated a network of animal-rescue operations she can lean on in a pinch.

While sitting at lunch at Key’s Cafe in Roseville on a recent Friday, a text message made her all but jump for joy in her seat. Over the course of little more than an hour, a series of nonprofits stopped by to pick up scores of kittens in quick succession — an early Christmas present for Lunaris and her team of eight city employees.

“We’re six and a half years into really building up a rescue network and transferring animals to partners, and it’s been really successful for St. Paul,” said Lunaris, who turned a summer job as a Washington, D.C., animal-control dispatcher into an 18-year career.

Sitting across from her at lunch, Astrid Kammueller beamed with pride.

Kammueller is a site manager with the Golden Valley-based Animal Humane Society, one of the donor-funded nonprofits that is helping support the taxpayer-funded work of St. Paul Animal Control on multiple levels, including handling its surgeries and adoptions.

PRIVATE PLACEMENTS, NONPROFIT PARTNERS

In St. Paul, the Humane Society staffs an adoption site and surgical truck directly next door to St. Paul Animal Control.

In fact, unlike the city of Minneapolis, St. Paul does not run a public adoption program of its own. Instead, the cash-strapped agency relies entirely on private placements and nonprofit partners.

“Adoption programs just take a lot of resources — financial resources, human resources, and you have to market the program,” Lunaris told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “Sitting next to an Animal Humane Society … it just made sense to join them, rather than fight them.”

The nonprofit Humane Society, which employs 17 full-time veterinarians and seven back-up “relief” vets at four locations statewide, maintains an annual budget of $21 million.

It relies on almost 400 staff members and 2,200 volunteers.

St. Paul Animal Control employs two veterinary technicians who can administer medications, but no actual vets who can perform complex surgeries.

Its nine employees operate out of a single building on an annual budget of about $1.06 million — with expenses far outpacing animal boarding fees and other revenues totaling $252,000.

FUTURE ST. PAUL HEADQUARTERS, NEW MIDWAY VET CLINIC

Unlike Animal Control, the Humane Society is expanding its footprint in St. Paul. The recent purchase of an $8 million warehouse near Minnesota 280 and Kasota Avenue all but cements the society’s commitment to a future state headquarters in St. Paul, assuming a fundraising strategy comes together in 2020.

In the nearer term, a second St. Paul location at 1159 W. University Ave. near Lexington Parkway in Frogtown soon will welcome veterinary students from the University of Minnesota in a $3.5 million teaching clinic.

Fundraising is still underway, but the goal is to boost the Humane Society’s targeted programs for low-income pet owners in Frogtown, the North End and the East Side.

REDUCING

EUTHANASIA

St. Paul Animal Control, or SPAC, is a public, taxpayer-funded division of the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections.

By city ordinance, if their owners don’t come forward, SPAC must hold wayward animals for at least five business days before putting them down or attempting to find them new homes, though many animals that Lunaris feels are adoptable stick around longer.

Under Lunaris, and then officially under the city ordinance changes adopted by the St. Paul City Council in 2014, the culture has shifted away from euthanasia unless absolutely necessary.

Still, about 5% of animals that were not already dying when they arrived at SPAC are euthanized, mostly because of intense behavior problems and overcrowding.

On Nov. 18, the message from Animal Control to its nonprofit partners was particularly dire: “We are at 100 percent cat capacity. If we take in one more cat without clearing a cage first, I will have to select a cat for immediate euthanasia to make space.”

The Humane Society, which also has locations in Golden Valley, Woodbury and Coon Rapids, is a statewide nonprofit that receives no government money and is funded entirely by fees and donations. Abandoned animals are donated from St. Paul, from across the state and even from southern states, where rescue resources are fewer.

Visitors can stop by the Humane Society’s St. Paul location to either give up or play with dogs and cats, read up on their medical history and adopt them, knowing their future pets have already been spayed or neutered.

In 2020, St. Paul Animal Control will enter into a new contract with the Humane Society for full vet services, including spay and neuter operations, at the Jessamine Avenue location.

CATS: EASIER TO HOUSE — AND TO ABANDON

Lunaris and Kammueller are of a like mind when it comes to cats.

Abandoned ones tend to be easy to place — but housed cats are far too easy to abandon. Roughly 60% of the dogs that Animal Control picks up will be returned to owners who come looking for them. For cats? The return rate sits around 3%.

That’s because many owners don’t go searching for a cat unless it’s been gone for days, and they have little way of identifying their lost kitties once they do go looking.

Calling up Animal Control in hopes of finding “a black cat” a month after the fact is of limited usefulness, Lunaris said.

Then there’s the $19-per-day boarding fee, the cost of a mandatory rabies vaccination, optional spay or neutering — many owners just don’t bother.

“When we have a cat returned to an owner, we’re dancing through the shelter,” Lunaris said.

Her solution? Don’t let cats outside at all — let them live out their natural lives indoors.

St. Paul Animal Control doesn’t just take in dogs and cats. Not long ago, they found themselves in possession of a marmoset — a chattering, long-tailed South American pygmy monkey — which are illegal in Minnesota. Lunaris eventually found a home for the marmoset in Florida.

“We almost always have stray chickens walk through our door,” Lunaris said. “We have a snake right now. In St. Paul, we do have permitted Alpacas, but they have a wonderful owner. … We’ve had alligators in the shelter.”

While Animal Control is open regular business hours, the division works closely with St. Paul police, who have the secret code to get into SPAC’s delivery bay and can drop off rescued animals at all times of day and night.