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Baltimore's anti-animal abuse efforts 'chronically underfunded and understaffed,' council told

Baltimore's anti-animal abuse efforts are "chronically underfunded and understaffed," leading to "rampant problems," including inadequate investigates and poor conditions for captured strays, advocates told a City Council committee Wednesday evening.

"We found ourselves hitting our heads against a wall," Caroline Griffin, the former chairwoman of the city's Anti-Animal Abuse Commission, said of efforts to curb animal abuse. 

At the hearing, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts vowed to reform the city's efforts, making animal abuse a top priority, he said.

"When there is an issue within the city, I make sure I see it, I touch it, I feel it," Batts said.

Griffin's commission has issued a highly critical report challenging Baltimore's commitment to eradicating violence against dogs and cats. Five members of the Anti-Animal Abuse Commission, including Griffin, have resigned in protest because of what they say is the city's inaction.

The panel's report said the Baltimore City Office of Animal Control is "chronically" understaffed, calling the agency the "neglected step-child" of the Baltimore City Health Department.

"Over the past year, we have witnessed a decline in the quality of cases investigated," it said.

In 2012, animal control received 24,132 calls for service, including 4,071 in which animals were in jeopardy. The commission said the city's decision to employ just one animal control officer overnight was "unacceptable."

Batts said that officer, in addition to her other duties, investigated 80 animal abuse cases in a single year. The police commissioner said he determined that the police department was not well-structured to keep up with the pace of animal abuse cases. He promised increased efforts from K-9 officers in investigating cases, and assigned Lt. Col. Dan Lioli -- whom Batts called an agency "star" -- to oversee such efforts.

Wednesday evening, Griffin said City Councilman Robert W. Curran asked her to testify but to not bring up negative issues contained in the commission's report. Curran called for a hearing on animal abuse after the resignations.

"I've been asked not to speak about any of the problems raised in the commission's report," Griffin testified. "I've never been invited to testify at a hearing only to have the content of my speech censored. The lack of transparency remains."

After the meeting, Curran said he wanted to "talk about where we're going, not where we've been."

The commission was created in 2009 after a pit bull, later named Phoenix, was soaked with gasoline and set on fire in West Baltimore.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has urged city agencies to address the concerns raised, according to her office.  The city and a private ad executive are currently engaged in a federal lawsuit over the ownership rights of the "Show Your Soft Side" public-awareness campaign aimed at curbing such abuse.

Griffin said Baltimore has lost significant ground in the last year in its effort to curb animal abuse. Both the health and police departments allowed cases to go untracked and uninvestigated, while city government continued to underfund abuse prevention efforts, she said.  

Griffin, a lawyer, said she and some other commission members concluded that they can achieve more progress through advocacy outside City Hall rather than working within the confines of what they say is an apathetic city government.

Former Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Gale E. Rasin, who of the commission members who resigned, said advocates believe that all animal abuse cases should be investigated by the police department, instead of the health department.

"It is a matter for law enforcement," she said.

The commission had about 30 members.

Curran said he would consider legislation to give animal control officers arrest powers. He said the council would review the issue again in several months.

Luke.Broadwater@baltsun.comTwitter.com/lukebroadwater

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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