When animal shelter left, social media stepped in
But taking care of county pet problem is exhausting
August 7, 2020
When it's your pet that's missing, having a place to go for advice and support can make all the difference.
During the nearly two years since the county's only humane society folded, that support system has been mostly online and filled largely by one small group. Missing Pets In the Northland is a Facebook page run by four friends. It posts lost and found pet photos and descriptions, offers advice and often a helping hand or supplies, as well as fundraisers for stray animals that would otherwise have to be euthanized for lack of medical care.
The page and its administrators/animal rescue volunteers cross state and community lines with posts about pets in Superior, Duluth, Carlton County, the Iron Range and the North Shore. Whenever someone posts about a lost or found animal, even on a different page like the one used by the Cloquet Police Department, the information often makes its way to the Missing Pets page.
The four women are Jodi Carlson of Cloquet, Amy Addy of Twig, Jennifer Cadigan of Proctor and Jessica Parvi of Lakeville (formerly Duluth). They've had remarkable success over the past two years in reuniting owners and their missing pets and finding homes for animals.
But the women are taking a break, they announced earlier this month. They're tired. They also worry that Carlton County and Cloquet officials are unaware of how significant the stray animal situation is because the Missing Pets folks are taking care of animals before elected officials and law enforcement ever hear anything.
Carlson announced the changes in a July Facebook post to the 14,000 followers of the page:
"We at Missing Pets in the Northland are no longer able to pick up, foster, vet and adopt out strays for Carlton County. We can still offer guidance and will still post all lost and found animals and we have some food and shelters left, too. We can offer suggestions to help end/reduce the stray population. Neuter and spay your animals, get all their shots up to date, put ID tags on them, microchip all your pets, keep kitties safe inside (or build a catio) and please be sure your dogs are leashed at all times.
"We will always be a voice for the voiceless animals. But now it is time for the city/county to see how severe the stray problem really is. Please be sure to call and email your local officials.
We will do all we can to help facilitate a new shelter/stray holding facility when the time comes - but until then - we can no longer sustain this momentum as full-time volunteers while keeping a healthy balance in our professional and personal/family lives."
The page still exists, but the women behind it are stepping back.
It's exhausting work, said Carlson, who handles the majority of the Cloquet-area pleas for help. She works full time at a veterinary clinic in Duluth and calculates that her volunteer work with the Missing Pets page takes up an average of another 30 hours a week, whether that's live-trapping a feral cat, picking up a found dog and taking it home or to one of a few foster homes in the area, or responding to queries to the page.
"There were times I'd be bringing one or two stray cats to work all week for checkups and shots," she said. "I'd leave early to get the cat from the foster home, bring it to the clinic, then back home to the foster." That often meant a 12-hour day instead of 10. On top of that, with Covid-19, work at the vet's office is more stressful and busier, with appointments backed up until November."
And she has a family of her own.
"They love me to death, but they're kind of getting bored with me coming home and being on the phone or leaving to find an animal or go scan an animal," she said, adding that they can't even park in their garage right now because it's filled with pet kennels, food, hay, kitty litter and other materials for foster homes and others who need help.
While people should call 911 to report finding a lost dog or cat or an issue with a stray animal, lost pets and stray animals are not a top priority for law enforcement - unlike at a shelter or even a Facebook page - and other, more urgent calls, must come first.
So while police will respond to stray animal calls and scan an animal for a microchip, there isn't any official place in the city or county to take a found animal unless it's deemed dangerous and is held in one of three kennels built by the city of Cloquet to quarantine animals. The city is required by the state to provide a place to hold dangerous animals for a few days (it used to be the Friends of Animals Humane Society) but an animal shelter is not required. After finding out it could cost as much as $2 million to construct a proper shelter, that option was dropped.
Following a joint meeting of 11 county, city and township officials in January 2019, officials across Carlton County decided to focus on expanding efforts to "chip" pets - implanting a microchip to provide a permanent ID for the animal which can be used to find the owner - and creating some kind of cheap or free spay and neuter program in collaboration with local or regional veterinarians.
Last fall, the Cloquet Police Department partnered with Carlton County and Northern Lakes Rescue to put on a free microchipping clinic for Carlton County residents. They chipped 260 animals: 259 dogs and cats, plus one pig. They are planning another clinic for this fall, pandemic permitting, Cloquet Police Chief Derek Randall said. The funds for the event come from city and county funds previously set aside for the defunct humane society.
Randall and Carlson agree it's vital to get your pet microchipped, even if it "never" goes outside. It's the inside cats that will slip outside and maybe not come home on their own, Carlson said.
The Cloquet Police Department also handles many of the lost and found pets through social media, posting photos to its Facebook page and sharing with Missing Pets in the Northland. Oon-duty officers are assigned a microchip reader.
"Hopefully, the owner has chipped the animal, and we can quickly locate the owner's information and reunite them," Randall said. "If we cannot identify the pet or owner, we usually advise the finder that the animal can go to Animal Allies in Duluth."
But it's not the police who take the animal to the Duluth shelter and Animal Allies doesn't always have space. It has to prioritize the communities it contracts with.
"Unless it's an extenuating circumstance, we do not transport animals in our squad cars in the same backseat we carry people," Randall said.
During the chipping event last fall, police also gave out 100 vouchers for spay or neuter operations at local vet clinics. Not all of those were redeemed, according to Carlson. She shakes her head as she talks about a litter of five feral kittens in her neighborhood that needed to be fixed, but she couldn't get her hands on any of the vouchers.
It is difficult to get an accurate idea of the scope of the problem, in part because the records management system for local law enforcement agencies doesn't specify lost or missing pets. It does cover animal disturbances, which can range from barking dogs to a stray animal. In 2018, the Cloquet Police Department received 243 calls about animals, plus one for a dangerous animal and 10 for animal bites. In 2019, it received 272 animal disturbance calls, seven dangerous animal and nine bite calls. In the first seven months of 2020, they've gotten 123 animal disturbance calls, zero dangerous animals and four bite calls.
The police chief said officers continue to cite violators who allow their pets to run free, unchipped, or be what city code defines as a nuisance. Since the animal shelter closed down, stray animals are no longer a violation of city code.
Randall said he doesn't know how much work the Missing Pets group has been saving the city.
"Their Facebook page and other community/social sharing outlets help us spread the word on missing pets, but I do not know to what extent," he said. "Time will tell how much effect the page had on our numbers."
More support needed
The Missing Pets in the Northland page is still active, along with other pages like Friends of Animals Lost & Found Pets of Carlton County, which has close to 6,000 followers and posts less often.
With 14,000 followers (up from 8,000 in January 2018), there is lots of online support for the Missing Pets in the Northland group. Most comments following the announcement agreed with the change, or at least were understanding.
"The selflessness and time you all have put into filling this need is invaluable, but you're right, it won't get better if you're still there fixing it for free," wrote Kayla Zinter.
Fellow rescue worker Nikki Renee agreed: "I am thankful for all that you have done, but most importantly for realizing your need to scale back before it took [a worse toll] and caused a complete shutdown. The need is still there, but this is the time for residents of Carlton County to join together and create their own organization and continue the work."
If she could wave a magic wand, Jodi Carlson said she would place an animal shelter in Carlton County again.
She has other wishes too. She would like to see every pet microchipped. She'd love to see more local veterinary offices offer discounted care for stray animals. Missing Pets would love to have a locked storage shed for the supplies that are filling up her garage. And she'd like to see more foster homes for animals.
"Everyone wants us to help them but no one steps up to foster, we weren't getting the help we needed," Carlson said.
She admits that the bar is high for fostering. Anyone who is going to take cats needs to have a separate room (it could even be a bathroom) where the cat can stay away from any other cats in the home for 10 days or more until it can get checked by a vet. All the pets in the home need to be fixed and up to date on vaccines.
There are far more found cats than dogs, Carlson said.
"I'd say we get, gosh, between 10 and 15 cats and dogs a week - some lost and some found - including all the cities in Carlton County. Lots of found cats," she said. "Usually dogs are reunited within a couple days if we can find someone to foster them, but a lot of cats aren't chipped because their owners think they won't ever get outside. Plus there's so many stray cats outside, a lot of people really don't look twice so they are less likely to be found."
Because there is no shelter in Cloquet, sometimes law enforcement will tell someone who calls about a found dog to let it go and hope it finds its way home.
"That's not good," she said. "The dog could be aggressive and bite someone. Also, loose dogs can cause car accidents. And if it's not spayed or neutered, it could be breeding with other dogs."
If people want things to change, they need to get busy, Carlson said. She rattled off what that entails: Talk to city officials. Volunteer to be a foster home. Get involved with the Facebook page. Donate money. Start a non-profit to funnel that money. Get organized.
"People can message us. We'll still do the posting," she said. "And if they find a pet and are willing to hang onto it for a couple days until we find the owner, we can give them food, blankets, a kennel."
Burned out or not, it is rewarding work, Carlson says. It's obvious by the look on her face in the photos of her with various strays.
It also shows in the way she talks about special rescues. Her most recent was a little black and tan dog that got really sick a couple days after it was found. Diagnostic tests revealed it was diabetic. The dog recovered after a visit to the emergency clinic and being nursed back to health.
"We raised about $2,000 and covered all the medical bills," Carlson said. "He's in a wonderful new home now and I get to see him every week."