Board delays approval citing more input
By LEE J. KAHRS
BRANDON — A public hearing on a proposed expansion of the town’s animal control ordinance drew several residents on July 15, all of whom voiced support for a stronger law protecting animals in Brandon.
But there was so much feedback and discussion around the proposed changes to the existing ordinance that the Brandon Select Board tabled action until the next meeting on July 27.
The Brandon Select Board convened the hearing Monday night prior to the regular board meeting. Like all meetings and hearings since the pandemic began, the hearing was held remotely via video or phone conferencing. There were at least 10 people in attendance, including Brandon Animal Control Officer Margaret Kahrs and Brandon Police Chief Chris Brickell.
It was Kahrs who last month asked the board to taken a closer look at the current animal control ordinance and strengthen areas where she believes improvement is needed. Those areas include seizing animals and being trained as a human officer in order to execute certain tasks she is not allowed to perform under the current ordinance. Kahrs, a master dog trainer with 20 years experience dealing with animals, was appointed to the part-time ACO position by the board in January. Five days after her appointment, Kahrs participated in the seizure of roughly 400 animals from the Hegarty Farm in Brandon.
Brandon resident Michael Shank, who has become a vocal advocate for improving Brandon’s animal control ordinance, laid out exactly what Kahrs would be able to do once she is trained as a human officer based on state statute:
• May apply for a search warrant to enter premises where animal is kept
• a veterinarian must accompany humane officer during execution of search warrant
• May seize an animal being cruelly treated (pursuant to search warrant)
• May seize an animal without a warrant if animal’s life is in jeopardy and immediate action is required to protect the animal’s health or safety
• May use reasonable force to remove animal from a motor vehicle if animal’s life or safety is endangered
• May accept animals voluntarily surrendered by the owner
• Issue civil citations
• Inspect the care and condition of any animal permitted by the court to remain in the care, custody, or possession of offender
• May arrange for euthanasia of a severely injured, diseased, or suffering animal upon the recommendation of a veterinarian
• May seize any equipment associated with animal fighting
There is some disagreement over whether the town wants to empower Kahrs to handle more criminal aspects of the ordinance as a humane officer. Town Manager Dave Atherton and Board Chair Seth Hopkins both expressed concern over “blurring the lines” between the ACOs civil authority and law enforcement’s authority.
But ironically, the thrust of the issue, according to Kahrs and several others, is to empower the ACO to do more so that Brandon Police don’t have to when it comes to animal complaints.
“Brandon has come to the point where we need a professional ACO,” said Brandon residents and founder of the Brandon Feral Cat Assistance program, Mei Mei Brown. “The police don’t have the time. We need someone to investigate, mediate and try to make the best of any situation. It will make a better outcome if we can be proactive rather than reactive.”
Hopkins and Selectman Tim Guiles volunteered to go over the ordinance and work on the proposed changes with some guidance from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. The ordinance is based on a model police developed by the VLCT.
Farm or farm animal?
One area that if approved will improve the ACO’s ability to perform her duties is the definition of a farm animal. Currently, farm animals living on a working farm are under the purview of the Agency of Agriculture. Hopkins explained that he and Guiles expanded the definition of an animal, which is any animal owned by a person that a farm animal residing on a working farm. That definition will now include farm animals like chickens, pigs, sheep and goats that belong to a Brandon resident and not living on a registered, working farm.
“These animals would not be exempt by the Agency of Agriculture,” Hopkins said.
Shank outlined the three areas he felt the board should focus on improving in the current ordinance, as was conveyed to him by the VLCT attorneys.
“The Town of Brandon could adopt an animal control ordinance that includes the humane treatment of animal provisions under 24 VSA section 2291(21) to be enforced by the ACO,” Shank said.
Section 21 of that state law pertains to the regulation by means of a civil ordinance the welfare of animals in the municipality, enforced by a humane officer.
Like Brown, Shank also asked that the town empower a permanent ACO position with humane officer training and sufficient powers to investigate and intervene when animal welfare is compromised.
Shank also said he would like to see a mechanism in plan within the animal control ordinance that places a lien on animals seized by the ACO for all expenses incurred while that animal was in the care of the ACO or in the care of a foster home.
Lastly, Shank asked that the board, is coordination with the ACO and the Brandon Police Department, in discussion with all-involved veterinary clinics and animal sanctuaries, establish a set of agreed-upon procedures now, “so that the next time this occurs we have a plan in place. These procedures would be public to ensure accountability and transparency.
Hegarty case “not the norm”
The “this” that Shank refers to is the Hegarty Farm case. On Friday, Jan. 31, Brandon Police executed a search warrant at the Hegarty property located at 671 Kimball Road, assisted by the Rutland County Sheriff’s Department and the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. The search resulted in the removal of roughly 400 farm and domestic animals from the property, including sheep, pigs, goats, horses, cats, dogs, a cow, chickens, ducks, turkeys and guinea hens.
Several Brandon residents fostered goats, sheep, and pigs as Kinder Way Sanctuary was stretched to its limit with the number of animals it took in, well above initial estimates of 100 animals.
Property owner William Hegarty has been charged with two counts of animal cruelty. Court proceedings have been postposed due to the pandemic. There is no hearing date set at this time.
It was the third time the Hegarty family had had animals seized from them due to suspected abuse. The cost to the foster families, the Rutland County Human Society and the Kinder Way Sanctuary are in the tens of thousands of dollars.
But the board was reticent to give the ACO the power to investigate under criminal authority.
“We have law enforcement and we have an ACO,” Hopkins said. “They work together and it won’t behoove us to put the criminal authority on the ACO. Sometimes the appropriate response for the ACO is to communicate with the police chief, or sheriff or Agency of Agriculture.”
The case came up a few times Monday night as those attending the hearing pointed to the Hegarty farm as a tragic lesson in animal welfare. Even Brickell, who has been hesitant to discuss the Hegarty case since there is an ongoing investigation, addressed the seizure.
“It’s a tragic thing but it’s not the norm,” he said. “It’s not something we can take care of with an ordinance. It’s a big case, it’s a bad case and it deserves the attention it’s getting, but it’s not the norm.”
Brickell said Brandon Police received 127 animal control calls between Jan. 1, 2018 and this week. Of those, he said, six were regarding the Hegarty farm.
“There were a lot of failures by a lot of state entities involved,” Brickell said. “Improvement is needed and I’ll work with anyone to make that happen. I agree that anything we can do to lesson animal cruelty, we should do. I have no dog in this fight. If the select board wants to alter the ordinance, I will enforce it.”
Brickell also said that as long as the ACO can write civil violations, the civil judicial process would work to getting animal owners to pay for their violations. If they don’t show up in court, for instance, it’s a favorable verdict for the town.
Vice-chair Doug Bailey asked Hopkins and Guiles to also add more direction in the ordinance regarding horses that may not be farm animals under the expanded ordinance.
“There should be some attention to horses in there,” he said. “There have been a few cases of neglect of horses.”
Another issue is that of accessing posted property. Kahrs shared that there are at least two properties in town where she is not allowed to access the property. Brickell said the police aren’t allowed to access posted property either. Bailey asked how those cases are handled.
“First, we contact the owner and ask for compliance,” Brickell said. “If they refuse to be in compliance, Brickell said witnesses sometimes provide crucial information. The problem is, they don’t want to follow through. He said if more people who witness animal cruelty actually step up and provide a written statement, more people would be charged.
“If an animal owner is not in compliance, we have very well intentioned people who’ve seen it but they need to provide a statement in writing,” he said. “Nine out of 10 times that we ask, the answer is ‘no.’”
Kahrs then read a letter into the record.
“Since becoming the animal control officer, I have seen and heard many things,” she read. “Some good, some the worst I have ever seen in my 20-plus years of working with animals.”
She said quickly learned that “this town is rightfully known as the town with a heart.”
“That being said, it’s clear that what we have been doing in the past to ensure safe and humane treatment of animals within our town limits has not been efficient in showing animals that same compassion,” Kahrs read. “As a new resident of Brandon, I have entered this with new eyes and ears. What I have heard and seen is a great need for a person responsible for understanding, implementing and executing any and all laws pertaining to owning animals in the State of Vermont.”
Kahrs closed by saying that if the proposed ordinance were adopted as is, there would be no point in training her to be a humane officer.
“I don’t think the Hegarty case is a isolated incident,” she said. “There is another farm in town that is hiding its animals.”
Kahrs said she believes giving the ACO more authority will free up the police department.
“We have a great town and a police department that do a great job maintaining public safety,” she said. “Why burden them with people who commit crimes against animals? This is needed, and if you listen to the people of Brandon, it’s not just dog bites.”
The board is accepting additional written comments regarding the proposed changes to the animal control ordinance. Submit written comments to Town Manager Dave Atherton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: Margaret Kahrs is the wife of Reporter Managing Editor Lee Kahrs