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Small communities struggle with stray dogs

Penny Parden, the former animal control officer for Halstad, tries to place a stray dog back in its kennel in the unheated building the city provides for strays. "There's no heat, you know. There's no setup, and that's really against Minnesota statute. That's animal cruelty all the way," she said. Jay Pickthorn / The Forum

Halstad, Minn. - Penny Parden locked her arms around the chocolate Labrador retriever and summoned all of her strength to push the rowdy dog into its cold, dark, wooden kennel.

The dog resisted, biting her arm and, when she finally forced its body inside the box, wedged its head in the door to keep her from closing it.

Parden doesn't blame the stray dog for fighting her attempts, given the conditions in the city-owned kennel.

"You just open the door and shove the dog in," she said. "There's no heat, you know. There's no setup, and that's really against Minnesota statute. That's animal cruelty all the way."

Last week, Parden resigned as Halstad's animal control officer after City Council members shot down her offer to build a three-stall kennel to house strays for the mandatory five days required by Minnesota law.

In fact, all of Norman County needs a shelter, said Wade Krohmer, police chief in nearby Ada, where stray dogs are tied to a light pole at the public works building and, if the owner doesn't claim them, taken out and shot.

The police department won't pick up strays "unless we absolutely have to," and the sheriff's office, which serves Halstad, won't pick them up at all, Krohmer said.

"They have no place to put them," he said.

Bill Forbes, a board member with the Minnesota Animal Control Association, said Norman County isn't alone in its struggle with strays.

"It's a tough problem throughout rural areas around the country," he said.

'He died in my arms'

Halstad hired Parden in early September after its previous animal control officer resigned, Mayor Glen Brookshire said.

Parden was paid $20 per hour on an as-needed basis.

There were no strays the first month. She picked up three in October - two were just dogs at large reunited with their owners in town - and none in November.

One night in late November, a woman asked Parden to take a relative's pit bull overnight because it had bitten the woman's dog. The woman planned to take the pit bull to a veterinarian the next day.

Parden didn't have a key yet to the city-owned storage building known as the "cow palace," where the city has two kennels for large dogs and one for small dogs.

So, she brought the pit bull home, muzzled it and kept it in her enclosed, heated porch for the night, she said.

When her handyman husband, Dan, returned from his route delivering The Forum the next morning, he looked in the porch window and saw the dog's muzzle was off. He opened the door to put it back on, but before he could get inside, the dog slammed into the door, breaking the safety chain and knocking him down, Parden said.

Parden heard the noise from upstairs and rushed to open the inside door to the home. The pit bull came charging in, and Roo, one of her three Chihuahuas, jumped between the bigger dog and Parden's children. The pit bull "went into attack mode" and clamped down on Roo. Attempts to pry the pit bull's jaw open with a knife didn't work, and they eventually stabbed the dog to force it to release the Chihuahua, Parden said.

"I picked up my Chihuahua, and he died in my arms," she said.

The fatally wounded pit bull had to be put down.

"My argument is, he shouldn't have been at my house in the first place," she said. "You can blame me, you can blame my being nice and allowing this, whatever. I tried to be as safety-conscious as possible, but I felt that my house was probably safest for everybody involved."

New kennel nixed

Parden, a Finley, N.D., native who previously worked for dog and wildlife rescue organizations in Lincoln, Neb., said Halstad needs an animal shelter with chain-linked, double-entrance kennels where it can store dangerous dogs and other strays.

She proposed a three-dog kennel, with fenced areas inside and out, in a vacant building along U.S. 75 owned by her and her husband.

During its Dec. 8 meeting, the City Council refused to change city ordinance to allow a kennel, which is defined in the Minnesota Basic Code as three or more dogs kept on the same premises.

Some residents and council members raised concerns about the potential for loud barking dogs and turning Halstad into a dumping ground for strays from other cities, Brookshire said.

"It's the same old complaint that we have. Nobody wants it in their backyard," he said.

Councilman Tom Maroney said Halstad, a city of about 600 people 35 miles north of Moorhead, doesn't have a problem with strays and didn't need the kennel.

"I think when you talk to a city like Ada who doesn't even have (a kennel), who is three times the size we are, I don't know what we were thinking about," he said, adding, "We're not a bunch of inhumane people."

Krohmer, the Ada chief, said he attended the meeting in Halstad with hopes of contracting with the city for kennel space. A couple of years ago, Ada city leaders mulled a kennel at a cost of about $5,000, not counting operational costs, he said.

"The cost of the building and everything was going to be more than what we figured it was worth," he said.

Following the law

Minnesota law says all animals seized by public authority "must be held for redemption by the owner for at least five regular business days."

It also says establishments must keep public records for at least six months describing the animals seized, when and where they were seized and to whom they were transferred.

Brookshire said stray dogs in Halstad are held for five days, as the law requires and then, if not claimed, taken to a veterinarian in Fargo-Moorhead to be euthanized at a cost to the city of about $100. He said he couldn't recall the name of the veterinarian, and the city does not keep records of the animals, he said.

"I don't know of anybody that does it, and I know a lot of mayors around," he said.

Parden said a comment made by Maroney at the Dec. 8 meeting suggested Halstad got rid of unclaimed strays in the past by shooting them. Krohmer said he also heard that at the meeting.

"And I think in all small communities that's what they do," Krohmer said.

But Maroney and Brookshire both said they have no knowledge of any stray dogs in Halstad being shot.

"As far as I know they went to Fargo," Maroney said, adding, "I never said anything like that."

Krohmer reluctantly acknowledged that Ada shoots unclaimed strays. Animal shelters in nearby larger cities are usually full or won't accept the animals, he said.

"Usually, we can find the owner. We recognize the dog," he said. "But our concern is if you get a vicious one, what do you do with them?"

While shooting a stray dog is a legal way of destroying it, having a vet euthanize the dog is the preferred, more humane method, said Forbes, an animal control officer in Bloomington.

Minnesota's Board of Animal Health requires a license and annual inspection for any facility that houses impounded animals, unless the facility is owned and operated by a political subdivision.

That means city-owned facilities "regrettably" don't have to meet the same kennel standards, Forbes said.

"I would say that the public facilities should meet those same requirements," he said.

The Halstad City Council has asked the city attorney to find out what its obligations are under state law and report back at the council's Jan. 12 meeting, Brookshire said.

It's a difficult issue for a small town with no dog pound or Humane Society nearby, he said. For example, F-M Animal Hospital in Moorhead serves all of Clay County.

"We don't have that luxury. No small town has that luxury, and that's where the problem comes in," he said. "We're required to do some things by the state, but we're not sure what we've got to do, and all small towns have that same issue. What do you do?"

Parden said a solution is there if city officials are willing to pursue it.

"Whether they're a stray or not is really of no consequence," she said. "They're still animals that deserve to be treated humanely."