Like so many others in Champaign-Urbana, I’m a proud dog parent. We adopted our first dog in early 2023. He’s a former stray, and based on his timid and shy behavior at the time we adopted him, veterinarians suspect he was abused before his time on the street. When my partner and I decided we wanted a dog, there was no doubt that we’d take in a shelter dog in need of a forever home. Since then, we’ve adopted another former stray, and we love our two pups dearly.
Our dog adoption story is notable because it’s the story of countless other dogs in our community. People understand that pets are family; animals deserving of sincere care, attention, and a loving home.
That’s why in late 2020, this community was justly outraged when the county euthanized a dog whose owner was in the process of retrieving their loving pet from a county facility. That family pet, lost on December 18th of that year, was put down by animal control on Christmas Eve despite assurances the county made to the owner that they would keep her pet safe until after the Christmas holiday, the soonest both parties could arrange for the pick up of the dog. The county government needlessly euthanized a family pet, and that tragic loss of a beloved dog illustrates the need for changing how we manage animal control to treat all living beings humanely.
Luckily for pets, the county administration in power at the time of that dog’s death no longer manages the animal control. We have a different county executive, and new leadership at Champaign County Animal Control who have demonstrated an interest in improving the facility’s operations. In July 2023, a county executive’s office proposal requested that the County Board allocate $75,000 to animal control, “to implement a low cost/no cost spay/neuter service, offset fines and fees for owners attempting to recover their pet, and subsidize medical treatment for animals in the County’s care when the owner cannot afford it, or the animal is a stray.”
This is a welcome start. Perhaps the most important section of this proposal is the offsetting of fines and fees. According to the new Animal Control Director in his comment to the County Board on the efficacy of this proposal, it costs most pet owners close to $200 after state and county fines and fees are assessed before an owner can retrieve their pet.
In that same meeting, both the County Executive’s office and the Animal Control Director expressed their interest in minimizing county-imposed costs on owners seeking the return of their pet, especially for those who cannot afford to pay. However, this only applies to county-imposed charges, such as medical care administered by our animal control, not the various state-imposed costs that place further paywalls between a distressed pet owner and their cherished animal. These state-imposed fees include a charge for animal control picking up an animal, fines associated with violating the animal control ordinance, along with other costs required by the state.
Here’s an example of how retrieving your pet from animal control could go. Assume your dog escaped from the backyard for the first time. You have kept your dog in full compliance with the county’s animal control ordinance, including fully vaccinating and tagging your pup. Champaign County Animal Control picks up your lost dog, takes your dog back to the county facility, and gets in touch with you to inform you that they have your pet. Assuming you pick up the dog that day, based on the current ordinance, you would pay at least three separate charges. You would pay a $50 fine for violating article one, section four of the ordinance; $15 pursuant to article one, section eight for your dog’s boarding in the county facility; and at least $35 for impoundment (this fee is at least $50 if your dog doesn’t have a rabies tag). At minimum, you’re on the hook for at least $100 before the county gives your dog back to you.
This current county-state payment collection scheme is an outrage and unacceptable policy to impose on pet owners in Champaign County.
The state of Illinois should amend the Animal Control Act, changing the law to rescind the imposition of ransom payments required for the county to collect from a desperate, helpless owner before the return of their pet. It is truly horrifying that under this scheme, if a member of our community couldn’t afford at least $100 at a moment’s notice, they may not get their pet back. Studies show that nearly four out of every ten people can’t afford an unexpected $400 expense, so while my example was hypothetical, the possibility that a pet owner could be forcibly kept from their pet should they not pay these state-imposed costs is a real and present threat. The idea that a pet could be held in county detention despite their owner knowing where they are, despite their owner desperately wanting that pet back home, is an unethical set of rules and an unacceptable use of government resources.
The tragic loss of a beloved family dog in 2020 was an opportunity to significantly reform the outdated and inhumane county animal control ordinance that allows for the killing of family pets. Although we are years removed from that dog’s death, countless more animals have died in our county government’s care. In 2019, Champaign County euthanized 384 dogs and cats. That is more than one animal euthanized per day. Assuming that trend held year over year through the end of 2023, the total number of dogs and cats euthanized by our county since then would total at 1,920. While that estimate is based on 2019 data, the most recent year for which a complete annual record of euthanasia data is available, I suspect many in Champaign County find a single pet’s death outrageous — I certainly do.
It is far past time that Champaign County adopts a no-kill policy. Far more conservative counties, including Madison and Effingham counties, have no-kill animal control facilities. It is a moral outrage that our tax dollars fund the slaying of pets, and it is wrong that our outdated county policies direct our hardworking, dedicated staff at animal control to kill these animals while their peers in neighboring counties are tasked instead with the hard, yet rewarding work, of rehoming these animals.
Champaign County government partially acknowledged this crisis of conscience when the one-time funding package for the spay/neuter, fee offset, and medical treatment subsidy program went before the County Board in July 2023. However, Champaign County government must act boldly to fix the inadequate state of animal welfare in this community.
Amend the county animal control ordinance to eliminate financial barriers that pet owners face when retrieving their pet. Advocate for changes to state law to ensure the Illinois-imposed paywalls are removed. Finally, end the absurd and immoral euthanization of healthy dogs and cats. Unless an animal’s health condition necessitates euthanasia, our government should not be killing pets. Every pet under our county’s care deserves humane treatment, and as a community, we should demand that principle becomes a reality.