Animal Control: Who is Responsible?

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Aimee Wall

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When I teach about animal control law in North Carolina, I often describe the work as multifaceted. The individuals involved wear various hats – they are animal control officers, animal cruelty investigators, communicable disease investigators, public safety officials, animal welfare specialists, shelter administrators, and community peacemakers. Given the wide range of responsibilities, who should be responsible for the work of animal control:  Law enforcement?  Public health?  An animal welfare organization? A separate county department?

North Carolina local governments have answered this question many different ways. In the last year, I have received quite a few inquiries on this topic as some local governments began revisiting their decisions, exploring new options, and making changes. I was curious about this increased call volume and thought it would be worth trying to pull together some baseline data about local government administration of animal control. The North Carolina Association of County Commissioners generously agreed to include some questions in its annual survey that focused on this issue.  The responses provide an interesting snapshot of a local government field that is tremendously diverse. They also raise an interesting legal question:  may a county health department delegate its rabies control responsibilities? Let’s first look at the survey responses and then we’ll dig into the legal issue.

Who is Responsible?

The survey asked the counties to identify the county agency responsible for animal control.  The responses are summarized below:

Sheriff 29
Stand-alone Department 23
Public Health 23
County Manager’s Office 3
Police 2
Municipality 1
Nonprofit 1
Emergency Services 1

The variety is impressive. Based on the narrative provided with some of these responses, I don’t think this list tells the whole story. There may be definitional issues — the counties that responded “county manager’s office” may actually have a standalone department that reports to the county manager. There also may be shared responsibility – many of the counties that responded “Sheriff” actually appear to have a collaborative relationship in place with public health (see further discussion below). Also, this preliminary survey does not attempt to fully capture the complexities of some of the relationships between municipalities and counties.

While this data gives us a good starting point for looking at the landscape of animal control administration across the state, there are many more questions that need to be answered, particularly those related to the benefits and challenges of each approach to administration.

Delegating Rabies Control Duties

One of the legal questions this survey raises relates to delegation.  As I wrote about in an earlier blog post, state law imposes very few mandates on local governments related to animal control. It does, however, require health directors and other officials to perform certain functions with respect to rabies control. For example, “a person who owns or has possession of an animal which is suspected of having rabies shall immediately notify the local health director or county Animal Control Officer and shall securely confine the animal in a place designated by the local health director.” G.S. 130A-98. If you want to read up on all of the details of the rabies control law, see this bulletin.

Another state law, G.S. 130A-6, provides that “whenever authority is granted by this Chapter [i.e., the public health chapter of the General Statutes] upon a public official [e.g., a health director], the authority may be delegated to another person authorized by the public official.” Does this broad authority allow the health director to delegate mandated rabies responsibilities to a county official outside the health department? To an official in another entity? Is “delegation” limited to subordinates?

I was discussing this issue with an attorney in a county that was considering transferring animal control from a standalone department to the Sheriff. She questioned the wisdom of delegating such responsibilities because the Sheriff “is a legal entity, established by the state constitution and state statutes, separate and distinct from the Board of County Commissioners….” Little v. Smith, 114 F.Supp.2d 437 (W.D.N.C. 2000). She expressed some reservations about the health director’s ability to supervise or otherwise oversee the rabies control efforts by an autonomous entity or official.

In the survey, we asked counties that have animal control in departments or offices other than the health department how they address situations involving potential exposure to rabies. As expected, the answers varied widely:

  • Formal delegation of authority from health director
  • Health director provides oversight of rabies investigation and enforcement
  • Health department provides support and record-keeping
  • Formal cooperative relationship and joint decision-making
  • Informal cooperative relationship between animal control and health director
  • All rabies issues referred to and managed by health department

Are these delegations lawful? I imagine so.  The delegation authority in G.S. 130A-6 is expansive. Compare it, for example, to the statute limiting sheriffs’ authority to delegate: “The sheriff may not delegate to another person the final responsibility for discharging his official duties, but he may appoint a deputy or employ others to assist him in performing his official duties.” G.S. 162-24. The language and the spirit of the two statutes are very distinct – one is restrictive and the other is permissive.  The sheriffs’ statute also appears to imply that the concept of delegation is limited to subordinates, but I do not believe the traditional dictionary definitions of the term are so narrow (see here and here).

I am not aware of any cases that impose limitations on the delegation of administrative duties from one official to another (delegation of legislative authority is another story, of course). The line of cases cited in Little hold that the sheriff has exclusive authority in some areas (including employee supervision and training) and the county may not interfere (or be held liable) in those areas. The rabies control issue is different. The health director is essentially contracting with the sheriff to carry out certain duties in a certain manner. State law expressly allows the health director to do so.

I think the real legal issue is the county’s potential liability exposure when a separate entity is carrying out duties imposed by statute on the health director. I’ll save this issue for another day.  There also may be practical concerns related to the public health expertise necessary to evaluate risks related to rabies exposure and exercise discretion in crafting remedies.

If a county does ultimately decide to delegate some or all of the rabies control responsibilities outside the health department, it may be wise to pursue a formal, written delegation that includes explicit authority allowing the director to revoke the delegation under some circumstances.

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One Response to Animal Control: Who is Responsible?

  1. Lisa says:

    Our county is considering transferring Animal Control duties over to the local sheriff’s department. The liability of risks on rabies exposure is a fascinating point that I shall reference in future conversations and correspondence. Another concern is the requirements of the sheriff’s department for the current animal control officers to become BLET certified within a year or loose their job. This may be a question more familiar with employment issues. There are currently some good officers that have 10 plus years experience; that were looking to retire form county government. Please advise if you see any loopholes or arguments we can use to keep Animal Control a part of the Health Department. Thanks.

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