The Washington Post

D.C. Council considers letting police use lights and sirens for ‘animal emergencies’

A D.C. Animal Control officer watches as goats are released to feed along Congressional Cemetery on August 7, 2013. The D.C. Council will hear testimony Thursday on a bill that would allow police and animal control officers to use lights and sirens to respond to “animal emergencies” in the District of Columbia. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

There are dozens of police departments operating in the District of Columbia — and between presidential motorcades, protests and everyday street crime — dozens of reasons for officers to fire up their lights and sirens

Under a bill the D.C. Council will consider Thursday, maybe add another: “animal sirens” for animal emergencies.

Mary M. Cheh, chair of the council’s committee on transportation and the environment, says she is concerned about stories of threatening and perhaps rabid animals remaining on the loose in the nation’s capital while animal control officers remain stranded in gridlock.

“We definitely think it’s a good idea, it would help us get to where we need to be a lot quicker,” said Zenit Chughtai, a spokeswoman for the Washington Humane Society, which operates the city’s Animal Care and Control operations. “Sometimes we have reports of animals at large, and we can’t get there,” Chughtai said, “because we have to get through traffic or have trouble finding a place to park.”

Never mind that D.C. already has a police force solely for the National Zoo (which ran lights and sirens last year for an escaped red panda), or that D.C. police officers recently arrived in time to shoot and kill two pit bulls attacking another dog on Capitol Hill.

“This bill burst out of situations where animal control officers were needed but weren’t able to get there in time,” said Devin Ward, a spokesman for Cheh.

When and where?

More often than you might think, Chughtai said.

The District’s Animal Control Field Services department responds to about 14,000 to 16,000 calls for service a year, she said.

“Just this past month alone, we have dealt with calls about rabid raccoons in high-traffic public areas, deer that have been struck by cars during rush hour and left to die in the middle of the street, causing a traffic hazard and creating potential for more vehicle accidents,” Chughtai said.

And aides to Cheh (D), who represents the city’s leafy upper Northwest Ward 3, have had two experiences in the last year waiting for animal services to arrive.

“I believe the council member will reference a story that one of her staffers recently experienced,” Ward said. “A staff member had to wait 47 minutes . . . for a raccoon that was acting erratically, having seizures, climbing back up a tree and falling down again.”

But who would set the standards for an animal emergency? And how much would it cost to train and insure animal control officers to speed through traffic?

Those details appear to still be up in the air.

Cheh’s bill, the “Animal Sirens Amendment Act” would allow animal control officers to operate emergency lights and sirens when responding to “an urgent situation, as deemed by an officer of the Metropolitan Police Department or the Animal Care and Control Agency, where, for example, an animal may be dangerous to humans or other animals or where a dead or injured animal is obstructing a public space or roadway.”

The hearing is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday, but it may be quick. There are no public witnesses signed up to testify.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.

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