Long pressured by animal advocates to make changes at Baltimore County's animal shelter, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said Thursday he's adding more employees, expanding low-cost spaying and neutering services and piloting a program for neutering feral cats.
The changes will be included in the executive's upcoming budget and would go into effect at the start of the next budget year, July 1. The changes will cost about $250,000 per year.
"We think we're moving in the proper direction in a deliberative manner," Kamenetz said.
The county executive said he's trying to move away from the past "narrow view" of the county's shelter in Baldwin as a place for dangerous animals. The shelter needs to be more focused on caring for animals and getting them adopted, he said.
Animal advocates have persistently called for reforms at the county's shelter. The county is building a new, $6.5 million shelter on the site that's scheduled to open in August, but advocates have pressed for operational changes as well.
Donna Bernstein, a Pikesville resident who has long advocated for shelter reform and neutering feral cats, said she was pleased by the executive's plan.
"It shows that advocacy works and grass roots efforts really do work, but you have to be patient and you have to be willing to fight," Bernstein said.
The idea of spaying and neutering feral cats through a process called "trap-neuter-return" has been controversial in Baltimore County. The county has been firmly opposed to allowing TNR efforts, to the extent that Kamenetz's chief spokesman once criticized animal advocates for wanting to "release wild cats into the community."
But Kamenetz is now saying that it's worth testing on a limited basis. He said he was influenced, in part, by his wife's stepfather, who feeds a feral cat colony daily in Owings Mills.
"I've tried to listen to both sides carefully," said Kamenetz, who owns cats named Jasper and Daizy.
The details haven't been worked out yet, but Kamenetz said feral colonies and their caretakers would be registered and the county would monitor the effects of TNR on the colonies. The volunteer caretakers would trap the cats and work with the county on spaying and neutering them.
If TNR proves successful in controlling feral cat populations, Kamenetz said the program could be expanded.
Animal advocacy organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, support TNR because they see it as a non-lethal way to stabilize feral cat populations.
Kamenetz also said he'll hire a volunteer coordinator and a foster care coordinator at the shelter – addressing two areas of complaints from the animal advocacy community. The new employees would help set up the TNR program with volunteers and animal advocacy groups.
The county executive also pledged to expand the shelter's spaying and neutering program for the public to satellite locations in the eastern and western portions of the county – an acknowledgment that the shelter in Baldwin is far from the county's populated areas.
Kamenetz also said the county will launch a Facebook page devoted to promoting adoptable shelter animals and that the county is receiving guidance from the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, commonly known as BARCS.
Animal advocates have kept up a steady drumbeat of criticisms of the county shelter, including testifying regularly at Baltimore County Council meetings and filing a lawsuit in county court in December alleging poor conditions at the shelter. They also joined with the ACLU to complain that shelter volunteers were improperly banned from taking pictures. And a Virginia woman whose group tried to provide foster care for shelter cats is pursuing a federal lawsuit, alleging she suffered retaliation after complaining about the shelter's standard of care for cats.
Earlier this month, the County Council passed a bill creating an animal services advisory commission that will review the shelter's operations and make recommendations for changes. The 11-member commission has not yet been appointed.
In a statement released by the county executive's office, Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, praised the proposals as "bold steps to upgrade animal services in Baltimore County."