A stray dog is pictured in an alley near the intersection of Reynolds Avenue and Furry Street in Holyoke. — Johnson Publications
Years after pound proposal, Holyoke struggles with strays
The sound of the attack jolted Marcos Lopez out of bed.
It was around 2 a.m. July 11 when Lopez said two stray dogs got into his yard and began to fatally maul his dog, Loki.
“I was woken up by the sound of it, by the sound of my dog screaming and crying,” he said.
Lopez ran outside and scared the dogs away, but not before Loki was severely wounded in his neck, leg and side.
Lopez took Loki indoors and stayed with him until the morning. He died from his injuries during the night.
Lopez had Loki since January 2017. The dog was a Chihuahua-Doberman mix and had inherited the miniature stature of his parents.
Lopez said that he went to the police the following day, but by that point the dogs couldn’t be found.
He shook his head. “It was horrible,” he said.
Stray animals cause problems for Holyoke residents ranging from small inconveniences, like defecation in yards, to major incidents, like what happened to Lopez and Loki.
Despite recognizing the scale of the problem, the City has struggled to respond, due to a lack of funding and space to hold stray animals.
Police face limited resources
Holyoke Police Department Sgt. Mark Werts said the death of Loki was one of two recent cases that the department has seen of pets being killed by dogs at large.
Sgt. Werts has been attacked multiple times responding to reports of loose dogs. Although he hasn’t been bitten, he had to pepper-spray a dog that attacked him and officer cadet Jorge Salas in June. Werts was trying to talk to the dog’s owner at the time.
Werts said that he had to pepper-spray the same dog a month earlier after it tried to attack someone that was passing by its owner’s yard.
“It’s definitely a problem here in town,” he said. “It’s enough that we get several calls per week on it.”
The City’s failure to curb its stray animal population is largely due to legal obstacles that prevent officers from enforcing the law.
Holyoke Police Chief Doug Bergstrom said that dogs and cats tend to be loose for different reasons.
“I don’t see too many stray dogs; it’s more dogs at large,” he said. “The feral cats would be more the strays.”
Although the city has ordinances requiring dogs to be licensed and kept from running loose, police officers are limited in their ability to actually enforce ordinances.
First, officers have no way of holding or transporting animals that they find on the street. They can’t even put a dog in a patrol car, in case they later have to transport a person with allergies, Sgt. Werts said.
The standard procedure for dealing with stray dogs is to approach them, if possible, and either identify them by their collar or follow them back to a house. Otherwise, officers try knocking on doors and asking if neighbors know who the animal belongs to.
If officers can’t locate an owner, they have no choice but to let the dog go free.
Owners who fail to restrain their dogs may be issued a dog at large citation, which is associated with fines, and, after the second citation, a court summons. However, limits within the current system of ordinance enforcement prevent the City from criminally pursuing fines and enforcing summonses.
In more serious cases, when a dog seriously hurts a person or kills another animal, officers may cite owners for ownership of a dangerous dog, which is a state statute and carries criminal penalties.
Bergstrom noted that if a dog that was previously subject to a dangerous dog citation were to be found at large, the department would still issue the city citation, in addition to notifying the health department.
The ordinance against dogs running loose doesn’t specify where or how officers should contain stray animals. Although an ordinance concerning stray cats came close to being drafted in 2013, it was ultimately rejected as impractical.
But even if officers could pick up stray dogs, they have nowhere to take them — Phillips County has no facility to house stray animals. This severely limits the City’s ability to pursue other solutions.
City pushes for pound
The City of Holyoke has tried on multiple occasions to solve its stray animal population. In 2013, a major push was made to provide temporary housing for strays, which failed due to licensing issues and a severe winter storm, which destroyed the proposed kennel site.
The 2013 plan hinged on a storage building next to the Holyoke Gun Club. After years of discussion and debate, the Holyoke City Council tentatively chose the site for its existing utility hookups.
The shelter would have been able to house six dogs at a time. In February 2013, however, the state rejected the City’s proposed layout, because it would have allowed dogs to come in contact with one another.
Still, discussion continued until April 2013, when a windstorm levelled the storage building and much of the surrounding area.
City Superintendent Mark Brown said interest in the project dissipated when the focus shifted from repurposing an old building to constructing a new one.
“Of course the price tag went up quite a bit. That was the biggest problem.”
Brown put in eight-hour days at the building, physically working to bring it into compliance with state code. He said the building’s destruction marked the end of the City’s most recent attempt to systematically deal with its strays.
“I’ve heard and I’ve discussed, but I haven’t seen anything physically moving forward yet,” he said.
When rehousing has happened, it’s usually been the result of individual police officers pushing to find homes for wayward animals.
In 2007, then-Holyoke Police Chief Phil Biersdorfer began soliciting volunteers for a temporary foster care program. The department was working with an Otis-based animal rescue organization, Pet Rescue, which is now defunct.
Two years later, code enforcement officer Dawn Worley told the Enterprise that she had developed a cooperative relationship with the Logan County Humane Society in Sterling and a no-kill shelter in Grant, Nebraska. Brown said Worley would often take animals into her own home until they could be rehoused. Then-Mayor David Nygaard also requested that people assist the police department in housing strays and transporting them to nearby shelters.
Today, the foster program has become less organized, and Bergstrom said animals are only fostered in select cases.
Sterling piloting a potential solution
Stray animals present multiple risks to public health, including spreading disease to people and domestic animals through bites, scratches, feces and blood.
Trish McClain is the public health director for the Northeast Colorado Health Department. She said stray animals are at an increased risk of coming into contact with wild animals, infected with diseases like rabies.
“We’ve seen cats come into contact with rabid skunks,” she said. “And the big thing with dog bites, besides the bite and the trauma, if it’s rabid, it can be a big deal.”
Post-exposure treatment for animals can be prohibitively expensive and take several weeks. For humans, once the symptoms of rabies become visible, the disease is invariably fatal.
Other diseases that may be transmitted by feral cats include cellulitis and cat-scratch disease.
McClain and Brown both called out feeding stray animals as a way of encouraging, rather than fixing, the problem.
McClain warned that by putting out food, people may be unwittingly assuming ownership over feral cats.
Brown also mentioned that feeding cats encourages population growth and that hungry cats are less likely to breed.
In 2013, the council members debated including a provision for euthanasia in the stray cat ordinance. But reducing the population through euthanasia may not be desirable either — not only because of ethical issues, McClain said, but also because the strategy requires every animal to be captured. If a few breeding pairs of cats survive, she said, the population can rapidly replace itself.
Biersdorfer told the Enterprise in 2007 that the City used to put down stray dogs if the owners weren’t found after a few days. Today, the City has no euthanasia policy for stray animals.
Spaying and neutering animals found at large may be the best option, both practically and ethically.
In June 2014, faced with the same problem, Sterling hosted a clinic to sterilize, vaccinate and release stray animals. The clinic was run by Northern Colorado Friends of Ferals, a nonprofit organization based out of Fort Collins, with help from Planned Pethood Plus out of Wheat Ridge.
Over a period of two days, pro-bono veterinarians operated on about 300 cats — the Sterling Journal-Advocate reported that the procedure took approximately one minute for male cats and 10-15 minutes for females. The clinic also offered surgical procedures for tame cats at a discount. Sterling has hosted at least two more trap, neuter, release clinics since 2014.
Any solution in Holyoke will require a facility to house animals, at least temporarily, until they are returned, fixed, adopted or put down. But building a pound will require a significant investment of money and time by the City.
Sgt. Werts said dog owners can help the issue by getting their dogs licensed and keeping their animals securely on their property.
Brown stressed that keeping track of an animal’s whereabouts is part of being a responsible pet owner.
“If you’ve got a pet, treat it like a pet.”