ALTON — In the wake of the tragic shooting of a beloved pet, Alton is looking to bridge the divide the issue has created.
Before angry residents could address the City Council during a regularly scheduled meeting, Mayor Brant Walker announced the city’s Animal Control Department would be restored, effective immediately.
On July 20, the first day the Alton Police Department assumed the duties of animal control, a 14-year-old pit bull terrier named Buster found at Family Dollar on Washington Avenue was coaxed into a police vehicle and eventually shot four times by officers, who said in the police report the dog was acting aggressively.
The incident sparked outrage among city residents, which increased when authorities discovered the animal was a pet who had escaped from its yard a day or two before, along with questions regarding the accuracy of the police report regarding the dog’s aggressiveness.
A large crowd of protesters once again stood in front of City Hall before the meeting, this time with signs reading “Paws Up, Don’t Shoot” in reference to the shooting.
However, Walker announced early in the meeting that due to unexpected revenue from a reimbursement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers totaling nearly $1.3 million, which he says he learned about that morning, Alton Animal Control will remain funded “for the rest of this fiscal year,” which extends until March 2016.
Approximately $50,000 of that money will go toward the Animal Control Department, and the council voted unanimously to remove the department’s cut from the budget.
The news that Alton will maintain funding for its animal control officer was met at with relief and outbursts of emotion from local animal lovers.
Area dog rescue volunteer Betsy Clayton, tears streaming down her face, cheered the news.
“It’s been a hard and stressful several weeks,” she said. “I do think it took a tragedy for people to realize the necessity of a trained animal control officer.”
After the mayor’s announcement, several people still spoke on behalf of Buster, including Jackie Spiker, co-owner of Club Paws in Alton.
“As a human being who has empathy for other beings, it was very upsetting,” she said in reference to reading the report of Buster’s shooting.
She cited a lack of training and knowledge of animals as a reason why police could not be expected to do the job of an animal control officer, and explained the circumstances surrounding Buster’s shooting as listeners sobbed quietly.
“That wasn’t euthanasia,” she said with intense emotion to the City Council. “That wasn’t mercy.”
Spiker emphasized that the officers, who had not been trained for this situation, were not to blame. The City Council offered no comment on whether the police officers involved in Buster’s shooting would be reprimanded in any way.
Spiker also thanked the mayor, saying, “He found some money, and the first thing he did was the right thing, and he fixed it.”
She added she was disappointed in the lack of an apology from the APD.
“They still haven’t provided us with any of their policies,” she said. “They’re saying their procedure is to take them out and shoot them, and that’s not legal. If I were to shoot my dog like that, it’s a felony. It’s aggravated animal cruelty.”
When asked if she believed animal control funding would continue after March 2016, she replied, “The mayor has been very forthcoming with us. He reached out to us. Some in our group had a meeting with him today, and they’re working on making sure it’s funded after March 2016.”
The APD says it is making every effort to update and adjust policies to coincide with proper animal control.
“It is sad and unfortunate that it took something like what happened with Buster for us to realize that we need to review the existing practices of our department,” a post to the APD Facebook page on July 23 said. “Please understand that change does not happen immediately … we are currently reviewing our existing policies and will make changes as necessary. We look forward to working with our community’s animal welfare organizations throughout this process.”
For his part, Walker says this can be seen as an opportunity for the city to come together and help bring about a positive outcome.
“We’re still not out of the woods,” he said. “We were just very lucky. It was a very, very good day for Alton yesterday.”
Walker also pointed once again to the governor for the city’s challenge to juggle a tightening budget.
“(Cities like Alton) are the economic engines of this state,” he said. “We police your cities. We put out your fires. Hopefully the governor will see that (and stop interfering in funding).”
In his written statement, Walker said Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed reductions in the Local Government Distributive Fund have affected municipalities all over the state.
“It has been extremely challenging to find a way to continue to provide vital city services with decreasing revenues,” Walker said. “In constructing a budget for this fiscal year, I, along with the City Council, were forced to make very difficult decisions. One of those decisions was the elimination of the Animal Control Department for the City of Alton. When we made that decision, I was confident that through the work of the public works director an acceptable alternative could be found to continue to provide those services at a lower cost to taxpayers.
“Unfortunately, that plan did not come together in a timely fashion. While we will continue to find ways to reduce expenditures and live within our budget, we cannot eliminate all animal control services without a viable alternative.”
On July 27, the APD contacted Hope Animal Rescue to assist with a dog on the premises during a search warrant.
“The dog was safely removed from the scene and is safe and sound,” the animal rescue organization’s Facebook page stated last Monday. “Our hats are off to the officers; we can make our city a better place by helping each other instead of knocking each other down ... 100 percent support for our officers.”
Animal control officer Steve Bosaw returns to work on Aug. 3.