, Newburyport, MA

February 22, 2013

Officials defend animal officer

Salisbury, Amesbury say allegations against Congdon unfounded

By Angeljean Chiaramida

---- — SALISBURY — Officials in Salisbury and Amesbury are coming to the defense of their joint animal control officer, Harold Congdon, amid allegations of improper behavior and mistreatment of animals broadcast in a Boston TV news report last week.

Salisbury Town Manager Neil Harrington said the news report was based on inaccurate information provided by disgruntled dog owners whose animals were picked up and held by Congdon following complaints against them.

Harrington said a tremendous amount of misinformation supplied to Fox 25 News served as the basis for the story.

“The people who went to Fox News about our animal control officer are people who neglected their own animals,” he said.

Harrington added that “key information” obtained from Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer that could have vindicated Congdon was omitted from the report.

Congdon has been Salisbury’s part-time animal control officer for many years. Three years ago, he also assumed the role in Amesbury through a joint agreement between the two communities.

Congdon responds to complaints only when he is on duty from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and draws an annual salary of $19,500.

After hours, Congdon’s daughter, Tina Boucher, handles complaints on an on-call basis. She is paid on a fee-for-service basis, receiving $40 a call. If she has to take a dog in, she is paid a $50 animal pick-up fee, Harrington said.

In addition to serving as animal control officer, Congdon owns his own businesses, including a taxi service and auto salvage operation. He runs the businesses out of the same Elm Street location where he also houses the kennel for dogs that are confiscated in Salisbury.

Harrington believes the Boston station misrepresented the idea that the confiscated animals in Salisbury were being kept in the midst of a “junk yard.” He said the cars are on one side of the property, away from the kennel, which is on the other side.

“I got calls from people asking me why stray dogs were kept in junk cars,” Harrington said. “I told them the dogs weren’t being kept in junk cars. ... But all the Fox News people filmed were the junk cars.”

Harrington said the Fox News report failed to differentiate between boarding fees, paid to Congdon and Boucher for housing confiscated dogs, and fines, which go to the town.

“The town (of Salisbury) doesn’t have its own kennel, so Harold keeps the dogs he picks up for us at his kennel, and that’s why boarding fees go directly to him,” Harrington said. “The (Fox News) report mixed boarding fees and fines. They’re two different things.”

Amesbury contracts with a private kennel for the dogs picked up in its city. Boarding fees are paid to the kennel — not the city or the dog officer — before the animals are released.

Congdon appears to have come to the attention of Fox News after being contacted by Salisbury reident Leslie Hinton, whose boxer, Shelby, was confiscated twice, the second time resulting in Congdon getting the dog adopted.

In the Fox News report, Hinton claimed her dog was picked up for no reason, adding she was charged a lot of money in fees — “over a grand” on one occasion — which she said she was told to give to Boucher, not the town.

Hinton also depicted Congdon’s kennel as “horrible,” adding he and Boucher didn’t care about dogs, only about getting money for boarding them.

Congdon’s written reports on the Hinton incidents are quite different. In them, he says he took action against Hinton and Shelby only after police called animal control on two separate occasions following complaints from neighbors.

The first time, Boucher found the boxer in the street in violation of the town’s leash law, and took it to Congdon’s kennel. By the time the owner called five days later, the bill was $275 — $50 for the pick-up fee and $45 a day kennel fees. Harrington said the fees were owned to Boucher and Congdon, since they constituted pick-up and boarding charges, not fines.

Boucher waived the fine for violation of the town’s leash law since it was a first offense, Harrington said. And according to Congdon’s report, Boucher returned the dog to Hinton without receiving payment out of consideration for the woman’s money problems.

“Tina felt sorry for (the owner), gave the dog Shelby back and said pay when you can,” Congdon wrote, adding payment “didn’t happen.”

The second incident came after neighbors complained about barking dogs left unattended outside.

According to Congdon’s report of that incident, two dogs, Hinton’s boxer and a pit bull, were found “soaking wet, tied on front lawn,” with no food, water or shelter, while they barked “day and night.” The dogs were taken to the kennel.

Congdon wrote that after the owners were told the condition the dogs were in was “borderline animal abuse,” the owner of the pit bull made improvements that impressed him. But the owner of the boxer never got in touch with Congdon or Boucher, so after 15 days, they found an adoptive home for the dog.

While Harrington and Kezer both refuted Hinton’s characterizations of Congdon, their support of the animal control officer was not included in the Fox 25 News report.

Harrington said that due to the blizzard earlier this month, he was unable to comment before the piece aired. The town manager said he was in an emergency preparedness meeting with town officials when the station first attempted to contact him on Feb. 7. He said he was unable to return calls after the blizzard because he was out of work with an injury after having fallen on icy stairs at home. Harrington returned to work on Feb. 14, the day after the report aired.

In Kezer’s case, Harrington said the mayor told the Fox News reporter that he hadn’t had any complaints about Congdon, but that comment was left out the piece.

“Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to speak to Harold, I’ve always been impressed with his compassion for animals,” Kezer said in the aftermath of the TV report.

Harrington said in his 10 years as town manager, he can count the number of complaints against Congdon “on the fingers of one hand.” He added he’s never received a complaint about Congdon abusing animals.

“Is Harold a character? Yes. Is Harold less than a dapper Dan? Yes. But is Harold taking money that belongs to the town? I don’t believe that for a minute,” Harrington said.

He added, “Harold will tell you there’s no such thing as a bad dog, there’s only bad dog owners. Harold loves animals and he’s really very good with them.”