Lisa Ann Donaldson founded Animal Lovers of Laveen, an animal rescue volunteer group, in 2014 to help care for and reduce the number of stray animals in her southwest Phoenix community.
But the group says a new Maricopa County policy threatens that mission.
Animal Lovers of Laveen is a Facebook group with 8,953 members that serves as a place for residents to post about lost, found and stray dogs and other animals in the area.
Members can post about animals they’ve found and some of the group’s more active members will pick them up. They have humane traps and holding facilities to keep the animals safe until Maricopa County Animal Care and Control (MCACC) officers can pick them up and take them to the shelter.
Donaldson said Animal Lovers of Laveen had a strong, positive relationship with MCACC for many years and the county workers seemed to be grateful for the group’s help.
That changed in March when MCACC said they would no longer pick up animals from the group because they are considered a “third party,” and not the first person who found the animal.
They’ve since been trying to find a compromise.
Why the change in policy?
Donaldson said she felt “bewildered and confused” by the sudden change, especially because the contract between Phoenix and Maricopa County for animal control services mentions nothing about a third party restriction, or a third party at all.
“We absolutely, as a community, support MCACC. That’s where people go to find their lost pets and that’s where reputable rescues can help the animals if they’re not available for adoption,” Donaldson said.
She said animals benefit from a positive relationship between the county and the rescue group.
“We don’t want to be in a situation where the animals are having problems, or are at risk, because we’re not on the same page as (MCACC),” Donaldson said.
Maricopa County spokesman Fields Moseley said the county had to change its policy with Animal Lovers of Laveen because the group was bringing in too many animals and had “questionable business practices.”
The group isn’t paid for their efforts, but Moseley was referring to the fact that the animals go through the group and sometimes stay at group member’s holding facilities before coming to the shelter.
And they turn over a lot of animals.
“This group has been a good partner for a number of years but their practices and the volume of animals they were requiring or asking the shelter to come get had reached a level that just wasn’t tenable, it wasn’t going to be successful and it led to a lot of other questions,” Moseley said.
In 2014, the group brought six animals into the shelter system, Moseley said, but that number has grown, with the group bringing in 607 animals in 2018.
“It was obviously a serious jump,” Moseley said “We’re talking about a small part of the community funneling hundreds of animals into our system each year.”
In 2019, MCACC’s yearly animal intake was roughly 26,000. Of those, 543 animals were associated with Animal Lovers of Laveen, Moseley said, meaning about 2% of the animals in 2019 came from the group.
Since opening in 2014 through May, MCACC has received 1,317 calls for services from Animal Lovers of Laveen, picked up 1,753 animals from them, and had 202 animals turned in at the shelter from them, Moseley said.
Moseley said no other MCACC partners have models similar to the Laveen group.
“Most (groups) rescue at-risk animals by removing them from the shelters, not adding to the shelter population,” Moseley said.
Steve Groff, one of Animal Lovers of Laveen’s most passionate members, said he trapped 235 strays in 2019 and he doesn’t understand how that’s a bad thing.
“We’re acting as law-abiding citizens who see a need for an animal to get picked up and we go out and we get it,” Groff said. “The number of animals we have in this area is ridiculous. To me, if I were in charge of MCACC and I had a group of people who were ready, willing and able to go out and safely contain an animal and bring it to me or have me pick it up, I would welcome that.”
Both say returning lost dogs to owners is a priority
Moseley said the county’s biggest issue with Animal Lovers of Laveen’s practices is the animals they take in can’t be connected to a “citizen’s request for service.”
That means the MCACC officers don’t know where the animals came from, if they were truly at large or if they were taken off private property, Mosely said. He said that could prevent animals from being returned to their owners.
“We have a return-to-owner program that whenever one of our officers encounter a dog that’s been reported in a neighborhood, they go out, 22% of the time they find the owner without ever taking that dog back to the shelter,” Moseley said. “So that saves on shelter space and that benefits the owner.”
Donaldson said returning lost animals to their owners is the group’s top priority.
She and some other group members have microchip scanners which allow them to scan the animals and return them to their owners when possible, without involving MCACC.
While the group doesn’t track how many of the animals they rescue get returned home, Donaldson said half of the 18 stray dogs they picked up in Laveen over the Fourth of July weekend were returned to their owners within hours of being picked up.
When animals don’t have a microchip, Donaldson said the group takes proactive steps to get them home, such as creating flyers to hang around the area and posting on local social media pages.
Donaldson’s family has lost a dog before, she said, and she wants to help families who might be in that situation.
“It’s a terrible experience and I don’t want anyone to go through that. People love their pets. They’re family to many of us and we want to preserve the relationship between owners and their pets,” Donaldson said. “By having them go to a centralized location where we can help look for the owners and make sure that the welfare of the dog or the cat is taken care of — it’s just better for everyone.”
Donaldson and another member of the group have facilities on their properties where they can keep animals safe if they can’t be held at the shelter overnight. She said both holding facilities have microchip scanners, air-conditioning, heat, food, water and indoor and outdoor animal space.
Donaldson said she can safely hold up to 10 animals on her property until they can be reunited with their owners or taken to the shelter.
Donaldson and Groff said local law enforcement officers who know about the facilities have dropped off animals there before when it’s too late to take them to the shelter. They’ve even been called to pick up animals themselves, Groff said.
“We get calls from Phoenix PD, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and believe it or not even from some of the MCACC field officers when they are out on a call for a stray and have to leave because of an emergency,” Groff said.
Searching for a solution
The county offered a compromise in late June, saying they would pick up no more than three dogs a day, but Groff said that wouldn’t always work. There often are more than that, especially when there are bonded pairs of dogs, he said.
The Animal Lovers of Laveen created an email campaign that members or supporters of the group can fill out to voice their concerns about the situation to the county’s Board of Supervisors.
So far, more than 350 people have sent emails. The group has not yet heard from the Board of Supervisors.
Donaldson said Animal Lovers of Laveen’s primary goal is to get back to a “proactive, collaborative relationship” with MCACC.
“We’re trying to make sure the animals are safe and then preserve the relationship between owners and their animals,” Donaldson said. “And we see (MCACC) having a role in that because they’re the centralized location that people know to go look for their animals at.”