Rodger Myers is in serious trouble with the law in Ravalli County. He has been charged with second-offense partner assault and second-offense cruelty to animals. According to court documents, Myers pinned his pregnant wife down, slapped her and threatened to “rip the baby out of her.” In the animal case, he is reported to have picked up his dog by the throat and thrown it across the room onto a table. Myers has pleaded not guilty to partner assault and a district court hearing on the felony animal abuse charge is pending. He remains in jail.
Reports like this are more common than ever in Montana. Both animal abuse and human abuse are far more widely reported today than in the past. Ethyl Keel, director of the Bitter Root Humane Association’s animal shelter, is convinced that the frequency of these assaults is no different than before, but community awareness has changed.
“We get more calls from people who are concerned about what they’ve seen,” she says. “And now, since the Krueller case, they know something will be done about their complaints.”
That 1998 case, against Sheila and Leo Krueller of Stevensville, resulted in several neglected dogs and cats being removed from an abandoned “puppy mill” in north Ravalli County. The case made headlines around the state, and the Kruellers were eventually convicted of multiple counts of animal cruelty. As past of their punishment, they were ordered to repay the animal shelter for food, board, veterinary care and other costs totaling $6,203.83. After conviction, the Kruellers paid $613 and then dropped out of sight, leaving the shelter holding the bag for 90 percent of the costs.
“As we get more of these cases, our resources are strained to the limit,” Keel says. “We have to hold the animals as evidence and we can’t even put them into foster homes without the county attorney’s permission. Everything we do has to be documented. It’s a huge cost in time, labor and money.”
Paula Nelson, director of the Missoula County Animal Control shelter, agrees. She is currently caring for eight goats, two peacocks, two rabbits and two cats—all rescued in a single pending animal cruelty case. This case is also a felony and may take months to resolve.
“We have dog kennels and dog runs,” Nelson says. “We’re using them for the goats now, but we’re not set up for large animals. We’re bursting at the seams. The facility is truly inadequate now for the demands being put on it.”
Both Missoula and Ravalli county shelters have handed large animal cases involving horses and cattle. The cases led to successful prosecutions, and the animals were eventually adopted out to other families.
“We caught a lot of flak over the last case because we asked for a $150 adoption fee for each horse and specified experienced horse owners,” Nelson says. “We didn’t want these abused animals going to people who didn’t have the resources or knowledge to care for them properly. They’d been through enough.”
Keel has been fortunate in that, at least in the large animal cases, foster care and donations have covered much of the expenses. But the increasing number of small animal cases has been a different story.
In five animal cruelty cases charged by the Ravalli County attorney since January 1998, the animal care costs total $15,468.02. As the cases have settled, restitution has been ordered in some—but not all—cases. Only $613 has been received, leaving an unpaid balance of $14,855.02.
“We’ve paid our bills—food and vets and help—but we’re using our resources to cover them,” says Keel.
The Bitter Root animal shelter is a private, non-profit group. It receives $15,000 per year from Ravalli County to help cover its annual operating budget of $160,000. Another $6,500 comes from the towns of Hamilton and Stevensville. The rest must be raised by donations.
Pushed to the limit, the shelter’s board decided to bill Ravalli County for the care of animals which are being held as evidence in animal cruelty cases. The shelter will be reimbursed for its costs on a monthly basis and the county can collect from those who are convicted of animal abuse.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, but we didn’t know any other way to handle it,” Keel says. “The county will have a vested interest in seeing the money is collected now.”
Missoula Animal Control is more fortunate. Most of its $270,000 budget comes from an annual mill levy and county animal license fees. But the additional animals put a strain on it also. Located near the Missoula sewer plant, the shelter is in the path of planned infrastructure expansion and may soon have to find a new site.
“When we build again, we’ll need to plan for large animal facilities, and we’ll need more space for dogs and cats than what we have now,” Nelson says. “As the county grows, so do all our problems—abandoned animals, strays, abused animals. We have to care for them.”
The relocation and expanded facilities would have to be covered by a voted levy or bond, Nelson says. She hopes the community will realize the extent of the need and respond. But until then, the shelter will continue to take in all animals, and the staff will try to cope with the demands.
“We get pretty inventive,” Nelson said. “We have to. The animals are depending on us.”