Every industry has specific words or phrases that have special meaning, but particularly when these are “ordinary” words, like “humane society” or “shelter,” it can be hard for people who are not on the inside of that industry to understand fully what those terms mean. In common parlance, such words are often used without an appreciation for their special meanings, which can result in miscommunication and confusion.

A Michigan statute defines two types of animal welfare organizations: animal control shelters and animal protection shelters. While these organizations serve many of the same purposes and may have overlapping goals, there are also some critical differences.

Animal Control Shelters

Michigan’s animal control law, known as the Dog Law of 1919, provides that “[a] city, village or township by action of its governing body may adopt an animal control ordinance to regulate the licensing, payment of claims and providing for the enforcement thereof.” If local government does not adopt its own animal control ordinances, the Dog Law of 1919 applies. Another portion of the statute provides for the creation of animal control agencies:

The board of county commissioners by ordinance may establish an animal control agency which shall employ at least 1 animal control officer. The board of county commissioners may assign the animal control agency to any existing county department. The animal control agency shall have jurisdiction to enforce [the Dog Law of 1919] in any city, village or township which does not have an animal control ordinance. The county’s animal control ordinance shall provide for animal control programs, facilities, personnel and necessary expenses incurred in animal control.

An animal control shelter is defined by statute as follows:

(f) Animal control shelter” means a facility operated by a municipality for the impoundment and care of animals that are found in the streets or at large, animals that are otherwise held due to the violation of a municipal ordinance or state law, or animals that are surrendered to the animal control shelter.

Because animal control shelters are created by cities and counties and are part of local government, their operations are funded by tax dollars. As the statute provides, animal control shelters may be assigned to any existing government department, and some common assignments include the sheriff’s office or police department, the sanitation department, or the public health department.

Regardless of their placement within the local government structure, animal control agencies are charged with enforcing local and/or state animal control rules. These rules are designed to protect public health through provisions requiring rabies vaccinations and dog licenses and prohibiting dogs from running at large. Animal control agencies are primarily responsible for picking up, housing, and caring for stray animals. Animal control shelters may also take animal surrenders from the community they serve and provide other services, such as euthanasia, cruelty investigation, education, and outreach.

With respect to enforcing the Dog Law of 1919, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has ultimate authority for enforcing the statute and enacting related regulations. The statute also gives enforcement authority to animal control as noted above and by providing that “[an] animal control officer or a law enforcement officer of the state shall issue a citation, summons or appearance ticket for a violation of [the Dog Law of 1919].” As the law’s name implies, the Dog Law of 1919 is focused exclusively on dogs.  For that reason, Michigan law does not require animal control shelters to care for cats and other animals.  However, county or municipal animal control ordinances, which animal control must enforce if they exist, are often broader and extend beyond dogs.

Animal Protection Shelters

Michigan law defines an animal protection shelter as “a facility operated by a person, humane society, society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, or any other nonprofit organization for the care of homeless animals.”  Often, an animal protection shelter’s name includes “Humane Society,” “Humane,” or “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).”  The similarity in these organizations’ names can create the impression that they are all chapters or members of a larger entity, but that is not the case.  Each animal protection shelter, regardless of name, is an independent, private organization.

As private, typically nonprofit organizations, animal protection shelters are reliant on donations from individuals, corporations, and foundations for their operating budgets. A volunteer Board of Directors usually governs nonprofit organizations.

As their name and the above definition indicate, animal protection shelters exist to protect animals. They operate in a self-defined, specific geographic area. Animal protection shelters in Michigan are not authorized to take stray animals unless a city or county that does not have its own animal control shelter contracts with the animal protection shelter to provide those services for the community. Animal protection shelters take owner-surrendered animals and may focus on any types of animals they choose as part of their mission. They may offer veterinary services, education, cruelty investigation, and advocacy and may engage in other activities focused on promoting animal welfare.

Regarding cruelty investigation, while animal protection shelters are not authorized to enforce the Dog Law of 1919, there is a Michigan statute that is part of the penal (criminal) code and empowers animal protection shelters to appoint humane investigators to assist in the investigation of violations of the animal protection laws:  “Any society incorporated in this state for the purpose of preventing cruelty to animals may designate 1 or more persons in each county of the state to discover and prosecute all cases of the violation of the provisions of this chapter.”  Michigan Humane’s Cruelty Investigation Department operates under the authority provided by this statute.

Comparing Animal Control and Animal Protection Shelters

Animal control agencies fulfill a public health and welfare function and were introduced to protect people from animals, while animal protection shelters were created to care for homeless animals. This means that these organizations have different perspectives on the same societal issue – the problem of homeless animals in a community. During the decades that these organizations have coexisted, they have found a number of ways to work together for the greater good of both the people and the animals in a community. They may offer many of the same programs and often work in partnership to make the most of limited resources.

The same state laws regulate both animal control shelters and animal protection shelters (as well as pet shops and large-scale breeders). Legislation applying to both types of shelters has resulted in bill drafters using a new collective term to refer to both: “animal control agencies.”  Of course, this does not make it any easier for members of the public to distinguish the two types of shelters.

As noted above, there are some key differences between animal control and animal protection shelters. Their funding sources are different, and they have different areas and types of responsibility with respect to enforcing state and local laws. They are responsible to different types of governing bodies, and the animals for which they are responsible may be different.

For all of these differences, animal control and animal protection shelters have a lot in common. One of the things most of them have in common is the need for support from the local community. Please get to know the shelters in your area, and if you can, adopt, foster, volunteer, donate time or money, or just spread the word – these organizations are doing great work for animals and people!

Please help us raise awareness and enlist the support of other animal lovers by sharing this blog and encouraging others to join our Legislative Action Network.

Thank you for all you do for animals!

Photo Credit: Michigan Humane

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