Pittsburgh Animal Care & Control Urban Terror Campaign

Pittsburgh has already begun to experience the effects of climate change with harsher winters, hotter summers, record setting precipitation, and increased numbers of invasive species.

City of Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan 3.0

If you were worried that the Pittsburgh Animal Care & Control division is subject to an overabundance of oversight or accountability, I am here to assure you – they are not. No one seems to have any actual understanding of how they operate or authority to step in. Except people with political ties.

Well, that sounds like the Pittsburgh bureaucracy we know and can’t fight.

Here’s the situation.

Pittsburgh’s Animal Care & Control provides a taxpayer pest removal service for taxpayers, unlike most modern municipalities. Beyond the obvious emergency situations, they will bring residents humane traps free of charge to address groundhogs, squirrels, raccoons, possum, and more that are entering structures or gardens or yards. If an animal is trapped, AC&C will kill it if its a rabies vector critter – groundhog, raccoon, etc per state law. If it is not, I don’t know what they do with it.

I don’t know because there does not seem to be any written procedures on any of this.

So let’s all agree that animals need to be removed if they enter someone’s home for human safety and the animal’s safety, too. We also agree that the state determines what happens to those animals – can they be released? will they be euthanized?

We can also agree that if a residence is structurally unsound and animals will continue to get in via say crumbling foundation or broken bricks or an uncapped chimney, the solution is to fix the building not just keep trapping and killing the animals. The animals are not sharing the memo about the issue so it is up to the humans to think our way out of it, not kill our way out of it.

For more on this, read our Q&A with Scrap the Trap

Here’s where we might disagree. I do not think the City should used public funds to provide pest control unless it is an emergency. My tax dollars are not here to protect your garden I’d support AC&C distributing information on how to remediate the garden situation. I’d support AC&C inspecting the remediation to see if its effective. I do not support AC&C doing the remediation unless there is a specific program in place to fund that. I also think AC&C should tell residents the truth about the solution – the baby raccoon is not released in a nearby park to reunite with mama. It isn’t a Disney movie, not even a DeSantis Disney movie.

With regard to housing and buildings, I’d support AC&C working with the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections (PLI – once known as the Building Inspectors) to automatically report structural concerns in any residence where they have to remove wildlife. Broken foundation? Burrows visible in the basement? Can you see the sky from the attic and not through the windows? PLI needs to be notified and the City should mobilize resources to HELP PEOPLE solve the problem.

PLI cannot get into a home without a warrant even if they receive numerous reports about conditions. If they can’t see it from the public sidewalk, it doesn’t exist. Sort of like how Disney looks at the rest of Florida. Magic!

Note – you may remember a neighbor who put a homemade billboard in her backyard to harass her neighbors. PLI could not walk along neighbor’s property lines (with permission) to look at the sign. And since the backyard was not visible from the street … no violation. Even when the magisterial level judge determine the sign existed, no code violations issued.

So we have two sets of conflicting modes of operation here – PLI has rigid rules that prevent them from detecting and addressing structural issues and AC&C can do whatever it wants. And we pay for every cent of it.

We also have two significant problems at the City level that are costings us all a lot of money.

First, Animal Care & Control does not have formal policies in place. Policies and procedures protect the public, the employees, and the community. AC&C is under the Department of Public Safety. They know something about rules and regulations. This absence limits transparency and accountability. It imbues the manager with too much unchecked power and authority in what’s supposed to be a democracy. How can the agents or the public know what to expect if there are no written or formal policies?

In my case, I think my neighbor is left holding the bag because she trust the AC&C agents to watch out for her and doesn’t realize that’s exactly not what they are doing – they are deliberately trapping her in a terrified state of mind by the cycle of trap and kill. The current manager of Animal Care & Control, Dave Madden, has told me so many different things, it’s mind boggling – last year he stopped the trapping after she had eight calls in two months, this year suddenly he can’t stop the trapping. Last year, his agents were taking calls from her on their private cell phones. This year, that’s not a problem. That’s a self-assigned investigation and not acceptable in any other part of the Department of Public Safety.

I am unsure if Dave Madden does not know what he can or can’t do or if he simply is so cocksure of his place in the City hierarchy that he doesn’t care about precedent, protocol, accountability, etc. Neither would surprise me.

Second, one department not talking to another about City issues is a concern as well. If AC&C gets into someone’s home to help them and can reasonably see that the source of the problem is structural, why can’t they as official agents provide a report to PLI? I’m not talking about random reports – there has to be a clear connection to the reason the resident gave them access. A wild animal is in the basement. Basement has holes in it. It isn’t a big leap to realize the holes need to be addressed to prevent more animal entrances and avoid a cycle that will only deteriorate. The City has all these social service connections to help residents who need financial support to remediate their problems. There’s a big housing fund. The money saved on the excess AC&C calls could be directly used to repair the homes.

And this is costing us a lot of money. ScrapTheTrap Pittsburgh gained data. Here are some highlights:

  • Estimated percentage of Animal Control Officers’ time spent picking up wildlife: 75% 
  • 41% of calls for wildlife trap and kill are garden/yard concerns (this data was only tracked in 2015 for a brief period of time so now there is no way to tell)
  • As per PA law, a veterinarian is paid for their availability to only sign off occasionally on euthanasia drugs. Their presence on-site is not required. Cost to City of Pittsburgh taxpayers: $3,300/month in 2015.
  • 2014 (entire year): Total wildlife euthanized: 2,545 Raccoon: 1,416 | Groundhog: 1,048 | Skunk: 81 Cost to taxpayers: $101,800 
  • Figures 2013 (entire year): Total wildlife euthanized: 2,493 Raccoon: 1,400 | Groundhog: 988 | Skunk: 105 Cost to taxpayers: $99,720 
  • Figures 2012 (entire year):  Total wildlife euthanized: 2,699 Raccoon: 1,622 | Groundhog: 994 | Skunk: 83 Cost to taxpayers: $107,960 
  • Figures 2011 (entire year):  Total wildlife euthanized: 2,833 Raccoon: 1,877 | Groundhog: 848 | Skunk: 108 Cost to taxpayers: $113,320 

So Animal Care & Control agents spend 75% of their time responding to wildlife calls, 41% of those calls are about garden and yards (not emergencies) and spends over $100,000 to fund that pest removal.

My neighbor had eight calls last year in the spring. That’s two employees for the 16 contacts (drop trap off is one contact, pick it up is a second) so 32 human hours plus the time to return the animal to the facility where it is turned over to another agent who does the executions. Plus clean and sanitize the equipment, write up the paperwork, dispose of the body, etc. Wouldn’t just cementing her basement be cheaper?

Now imagine if all those gardens were left to fend for themselves and the public funding went to address the geese situation along the rivers or to catching free range dogs or educating the public about what it means to coexist with urban wildlife? They could hold rabies vaccine clinics. They could get injured animals to licensed rehabbers.

The City does have a Climate Sustainability & Resilience program that does not include urban wildlife or domestic animals. It should. And I bet those City employees could offer some useful suggestions to educate the public about the role urban wildlife plays. Haven’t we learned from the bees, the songbirds, and the invasion bug species, not to mention that exotic animals flushed into waterways, that these are serious issues with horrible consequences for future generations?

I called Dave Madden when PLI had decided to raze an abandoned house that was home to decades of wildlife to ask for help trapping the feral cats. He said no because they weren’t allowed inside (fair enough) and people would steal his traps if he left them outside. He said “I don’t leave my traps” – like it is his personal property. That’s stayed with me.

And these are old numbers. What’s the current data?

I heard rumblings that City Council would consider a civilian oversight and advisory board for AC&C made up of wildlife and domestic animal experts along with residents. Then the rumblings stopped. If they rerumble, I’d strongly urge representation from someone working on safe and affordable housing and the climate sustainability work.

I think the City should phase out this trap and kill approach and add urban wildlife and domestic animals into our climate work. I definitely think the City should design policies and procedures.

  • How often can a resident request traps for non-emergency situations? (My neighbor has dozens on her permanent record.)
  • The agents should be clear about the next steps – don’t deceive people into thinking there’s some orphan groundhog and squirrel farm in the Strip District.
  • Create resource lists. Use an intern.
  • No self-assignments.
  • Work with other departments to address concerns.

I’ve done everything I can. I know my neighbor is afraid and it is heartbreaking that these AC&C agents are ignoring her fear and anxiety. I saw two dead groundhogs on our busy sidestreet last week so I suspect that’s our crew. They are running out of space to go. I don’t think they belong in my neighbor’s dirt basement, but I am quite sure that’s where they will end up until someone helps her cement it. But no one will.

The City tries to paint my concerns as a neighbor dispute. And to some extend, it is. I am traumatized from finding the bodies of poisoned groundhogs in my yard and fearing the community cats will lap up the bleach placed outside in a misunderstood attempt to control mosquitos. That takes a toll. I can’t imagine what my neighbor experiences sitting up alone in her house and hearing animals scratching around in her basement.

It is an urban terror campaign funded by the City of Pittsburgh.

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