Just a few short years ago, Waukegan was in a crisis situation when it came to animal welfare. The stray and feral cat population was out of control, Parvo was rampant in some neighborhoods and there were few animal control laws in effect. Thanks to a passionate team within Waukegan Animal Control, a helpful city government and some volunteer organizations, the community has done a 360 and become a leader in animal welfare in the state.
It’s an incredible turnaround when you look at all that was going on before the latest animal control team came on board. While a lot of people would have looked at all that was going wrong and just walked way, Susan Elliot and Nicole Garza went to work to make a big difference in their community.
Waukegan's cat problem
“When I first started here, there were cats everywhere,” says Elliot, senior animal control officer. “Certain neighborhoods were overflowing and within animal control we were just packed with cats – cages and cages lined the walls. There were not any Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs. In fact, animal control trapped and killed feral cats but the population just kept growing. It was out of control.”
Within the Chicago area, TNR programs are growing in popularity to help stabilize the cat population. Volunteer organizations trap, neuter and return feral cats to their neighborhoods and help establish colonies. In Lake County, Spay and Stay has been running successful programs for over 10 years, but at that time, they were not allowed to work in Waukegan. To pave the way for TNR in the community, animal control officers worked with city officials to create new ordinances opening the door for Spay and Stay to do their work.
“I’m such a big fan of TNR programs. We’ve seen a drop in our intake of about 400 cats a year,” says Elliot. “Spay and Stay works within the neighborhoods on the feral cats and we take in the kittens and friendly strays. We work with rescues to move those cats out. The kittens and pure breeds move quickly and we have to work a bit harder on the older cats.”
Spay and Stay has been able to spay and neuter around 700 to 800 cats a year thanks to a grant from PetSmart for the Fixing Waukgan program. The program opens the door for colony caretakers to have their cats spayed/neutered, vaccinated and microchipped for free.
Other low-cost spay and neuter programs are offered throughout the year, drastically cutting the cat population in the community. In managed feral cat communities, neighbors have seen another benefit of having a colony – a decrease in the rodent population – since rodents tend to stay way when the cats are in the area.
Parvo Virus in Waukegan
Another huge problem in Waukegan not that long ago was Parvo.
“When I first started in Waukegan, I didn’t know what Parvovirus was – I’d never seen it before in my life,” says Elliot. “We had certain neighborhoods in the city that were at epidemic level. We’d get hit in animal control and it would shut us down until we sterilized the facility. Dogs were dying and it was costing us a fortune.”
Parvo is a very contagious dog disease and it can take up to two weeks to present itself. Many times animal controls don’t know parvo is in the house until there is a full blown case when a dog comes down with bloody diarrhea. The good news is that inexpensive vaccines can prevent outbreaks and Elliot went to work setting up a vaccination program within Waukegan.
She was able to secure a vaccinations at $5 each (parvo, distemper and other required vaccines). Waukegan charges the general public $10 per shot, much less than a veterinarian, and they are able to offer shots for free to low-income residents. Elliot and her team worked to get the word out in the neighborhoods and to educate about the importance of a vaccination program.
“We have several people a day now that come in for vaccinations for their dogs and cats,” says Elliot. “Some think we are vets and ask us for help. If it appears the dog has parvo, we don’t let them in but send them to Beach Park Veterinary. If it’s not full blown, they keep the dog a day or two and show people how to do an IV bag so they can treat their dog at home. It has been a lifesaver.
Elliot also worked with a microchip company to provide chips to pets in the community for $15 each. Pets are now required to be microchipped by law in Waukegan. Pets that come into animal control are scanned for microchips and then returned to their family if the information is up to date at the microchip company. If you look at what was going on in the animal welfare community in Waukegan that was just the tip of the iceberg of what needed to be fixed.
“There was so little respect for dogs in this community and for cats it was even worse,” says Elliot. “People left their dogs in their cars or left them tied up outside permanently. Dogs were running loose and of course we had many cases of abuse.”
The city had repeated cases of dogs being left in cars in the heat and dying. Elliot worked with the mayor, city council and attorney Anna Finn to write laws that make that illegal and instituted fines. Stricter ordinances placed restrictions on leaving dogs chained outdoors, required city licenses for cats and dogs over four months old and places restrictions on the number of pets residents can own.
Restrictions were also place on dogs barking and howling in the neighborhood and that require pet owners to clean up after their dogs and cats that defecate on other people’s property. The laws also greatly increased fines for those guilty of animal abuse and neglect.
“We have police officers on the street that live, die and breath for the animals. They will write tickets and press charges,” says Elliot. “We are no longer putting up with abuse and neglect in our city. We also have Wayne Motley as mayor who is not only supportive of what we do, but also fosters animals for rescues.”
A community effort
While animal control and city officials have worked hard to make a difference for the animals, a non-profit has stepped up to help as well. Waukegan Animals Getting Saved – or WAGS – has helped with fundraising and getting supplies. This summer, those programs include low-cost spay, neuter and vaccination services in conjunction with AHA for Waukegan residents. Learn more in this story.
“Because of WAGS, we’ve been able to provide medical help for many animals that we never would have had the budget to help,” says Elliot. “We had a dog named Joker that was hit by a car and needed a leg amputated. We don’t have many problems placing smaller dogs, but pit bulls need more work. They’ve helped us with vetting and pictures to network those dogs into rescue.
WAGS has also helped pay for vetting for numerous cats and dogs, helping network them to rescues. Elliot says that rescue organizations must register with her to pull dogs. However, once they are approved, it’s pretty easy to rescue from Waukegan Animal Control and about 60 groups do so presently. Some of the groups that pull frequently include Animal Education and Rescue, Tails of Hope, Castaway Pet Rescue and Bombshell Bullies (just to name a few).
This summer, additional low-cost programs have extended to the citizens of Waukegan as well. WAGS has joined forces with AHA, a group that offers low cost spay, neuter, vaccination and other services, to offer a variety of services to pet families in the community. Learn more in this story.
Ending the cycle
“We have so much patience when it comes to rescuing an animal out on the streets,” adds Elliot. “I’ll sit there for hours to wait to gain trust and we don’t use a pole to capture them. We work with dogs and have only had three that were so aggressive they needed to be euthanized.”
It’s more than about the animals. National studies have shown that animal abuse and child and/or spousal abuse go hand in hand. Officers have now been trained to investigate for abuse after reports of animal abuse and they will call in DCFS. Thanks to the passion of the department, Waukegan has become a leader in animal welfare in Illinois.
“I think that far too often, people in animal control do not love animals,” says Elliot. “I really feel that if you don’t love animals, you shouldn’t be in animal control. In the past several years, we’ve done so much and come so far. I want to be the best in Illinois and I think we’re there.”
If you’d like to check out the happy endings thanks to Waukegan Animal Control, check out the this page on Facebook. Pets needing rescue are here. Information about fundraising and special community programs like low-cost spay and neuter and pet safety tips are on the WAGS page. Information about this summer’s low cost spay, neuter and vaccination program may be found here.
Writers note: Times are changing in animal control facilities around Chicago. In a growing number of communities, passionate animal advocates have stepped up to change the face of animal control from the dog catchers to a place that people in the community can turn to for help. In the process, they are also networking dogs and cats needing rescue and saving lives.
Departments of all sizes are showing that animal control is more than a holding place until pets are euthanized and that community involvement can help more pets find rescue and make zero euthanasia for space a reality. Throughout the summer, I will tell the stories of some of these departments and animal control officers and volunteers that are working hard to change the face of animal control and saving lives in the process.
Read about the changes in North Chicago here.
Read here about volunteer efforts to save the cats of Chicago.
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