Merced resident Kathleen Emerson, 21, considers herself a huge animal lover.
That’s why the UC Merced junior couldn’t believe what she was hearing from a Merced police officer on a recent evening in Merced.
“The police officer said, ‘We get calls about dogs that are hit (by vehicles) and still alive, and if they don’t have a tag, we take them out to the range and shoot them,’” Emerson said. “I couldn’t believe it. I’d never heard of officers being allowed to do that.”
Earlier that August day, Emerson was on her way to meet a friend when she received a phone call that changed her plans. Her friend had just witnessed two toy poodles running onto GStreet, under the overpass and into oncoming traffic.
“Both of the dogs had been hit by a couple cars and people just kept hitting them,” she said. “Both dogs were dead. People saw them and didn’t stop.”
Emerson met her friend by the street and they flagged down a Merced police officer, who told them the department’s policy. Emerson said the officer told them “at least the dogs died instantly,” because otherwise they would be taken to the police shooting range on Gove Road and shot.
“We asked if it was legal, and he said that’s what they’re supposed to do,” Emerson recalled. “He said he hates putting dogs in the car and taking them to the range.”
Merced Police Chief Norm Andrade confirmed that officers do take severely injured animals to the department’s shooting range to be put down, but said such incidents are rare.
“Yes, we can dispose of a dog in that manner by shooting it. They do give us that authority,” Andrade said. “No one looks forward to doing it. It’s the exception, not the rule.”
Andrade said officers determine which animals to take to the veterinarian and which ones to “dispatch” – or shoot – at the department’s shooting range. The officers use “common sense” and get approval from their supervisor before shooting the dog, he added.
The dogs with grave injuries are usually the ones taken to the range to be shot, Andrade said.
“If it’s such an injury that we know the animal is having great pain, then that determination is made,” he said. “The policy says we have a right to do that when we see an injured animal to take it out of its misery.”
“Most of these guys will try to take it to the vet,” Andrade added.
The officers also consider whether the dog has an owner by checking for a microchip or collar tag. They’ll use either a patrol car or an animal control vehicle to transport the injured animal, he said.
According to California Penal Code 597.1, any peace officer can “humanely destroy any stray or abandoned animal” if it is too severely injured to move or where a veterinarian is not available.
However, officials from the Humane Society of the United States said if an injured animal can be moved, it needs to be taken to a veterinarian – not the shooting range.
“The law does not permit the officer to move the animal to the shooting range to be put down,” said Eric Sakach, senior law enforcement specialist with Humane Society of the United States. “If they find an injured animal that can be moved, they’re only allowed to transport the animal to a veterinarian and they make the determination.”
Sakach said dispatching animals is allowed in “rare instances” when injured animals cannot be transported — and only by trained officers.
“Most officers are not trained on how to properly dispatch an animal with a gun,” he said. “Dogs have different bullet-point areas in the head that have to be shot to make it a humane dispatch.”
Andrade said the department does not provide training on how to dispatch animals, but officers use a shotgun to put the dogs down in one or two shots.
Kim Herzog, Merced police animal control officer, is the only person on the staff certified to euthanize by needle. She said the officers dread dispatching an animal, but it’s a requirement of the job.
“Believe me, our guys don’t like shooting dogs,” Herzog said, adding that it happens once or twice a month. “You kind of have to make a determination if the animal is going to survive. The city’s not going to pay to do all of this extensive medical treatment.”
The Police Department spent $1,500 on veterinary costs last year, according to Andrade. The department paid $85,686 to the county’s animal control for disposal, euthanasia and other fees.
Animals over 35 pounds must be taken to Merced County Animal Control for disposal; under 35 pounds can be put in a dumpster.
The city took in $26,000 in revenue for animal licensing fees, he added.
Andrade said animal activist groups are quick to blame the Police Department, but none have stepped up to offer education about reducing the city’s stray animal population.
“They’re very quick to point the finger on what law enforcement should or shouldn’t do,” Andrade said. “I challenge them – if they want to do something about this problem, why aren’t they out there having numerous meetings with the public about how to care for their animals?”
Emerson agreed the community needs to come together to deal with the problem, but said shooting injured animals isn’t a humane way to euthanize them. “It’s like holding a gun to someone else’s head. They feel exactly what we feel,” she said. “That must be so scary for a dog.”
Neighboring police departments in the county deal with injured animals in different ways.
Atwater police Lt. Sam Joseph said police officers there do not make decisions to euthanize injured animals.
“We don’t have the authorization to take a dog to the range and euthanize it ourselves by shooting,” Joseph said. “We call the on-call animal control and they take it to a vet to be put down.”
Livingston Police Chief Ruben Chavez said his officers have taken injured animals to the shooting range to be dispatched, but it only happens about once a year.
“Normally, we take them to vet and they will determine whether to euthanize,” Chavez said. “If it’s after hours and animal control is not around, then officers will do it themselves.”
Herzog and other Merced police officials said it goes back to responsible pet ownership.
“If we had more responsible owners keeping their dogs in, this wouldn’t be an issue,” she said. Stressing the importance of proper identification tags for dogs, Herzog said, “That’s why I always tell people: Put a collar on your dog. That is your dog’s trip to the vet.”