A regular Source feature, Undercurrents slips below the surface of Virgin Islands daily routines and assumptions to explore in greater depth the beauty, the mystery, the murky and the disregarded familiar. It is our bid to get to know the community more deeply.
A couple of weeks ago a St. Thomas resident stumbled over a bureaucratic jumble that may require legislation to untangle.
Laurie Emery was driving down Weymouth Rhymer Highway on the stretch between Market Square East and Fort Mylner when she realized traffic ahead of her was swerving to avoid something in the road. At first she thought it was road construction, but then she saw the cause: a large dog lying dead in the road.
“It was a German shepherd-type. It looked well groomed and seemed well fed. Somebody was taking care of it, I’m sure,” she said. “It was right in the center lane and everyone was driving around it. But I can’t do that.”
Emery pulled off the road and removed the dog to the side of the road. That was the easy part. Then she started making calls trying to find the agency/department/entity responsible for disposal of dead animals from public areas.
She started with the Humane Society, a non-profit organization that does have a contract with the government, through the Agriculture Department, to pick up stray dogs and cats, but only live animals.
From there she went to Environmental Health where a woman advised her to call Public Works. The woman she spoke with at Public Works told her to call Environmental Health. She spoke with someone else the second time she called Environmental Health and said she was told “technically no one is assigned” to deal with the problem.
She tried the Humane Society again and was advised to try lodging a complaint at Government House. After leaving messages, eventually she spoke with two women there – both of whom she said were apologetic and nice and indicated they would follow up. But in the meantime, Emery had called the Humane Society once again and shelter manager Rhea Vasconcellos said they’d take of it.
“In the end our vet tech went out to pick up the dog,” Vasconcellos said last week. “It’s not our responsibility,” but staff regularly have to deal with dead animals at the shelter, so they have the proper equipment and the expertise. The animals end up at the Bovoni Landfill in a special section where they are treated with chemicals and buried.
Of course, pets and livestock are always an owner’s responsibility, both living and after death. But when an animal dies in a public area and ownership can’t be determined, which government entity is responsible for disposal?
That depends on whom you ask.
On a practical level, personnel in several departments say they will and they do deal with the problem, but some insist that it isn’t really their job.
“Health has always been responsible” for the disposal of smaller animals, said Stella Saunders, communications manager and public relations representative for the Waste Management Authority. “It is part of their mandate.”
Not exactly, according to Eunice Bedminister, public relations director and special assistant to the commissioner for the Department of Health.
“The original Rules and Regulations for Sanitation (V.I. R&R Title 19 Chapter 53 Section 1404-61) state ‘the carcass of any dead animal not killed for food shall be removed and disposed of within 24 hours after death by burial, incineration or other method approved by the Commissioner of Health.’ But it does not indicate that the commissioner, or the Department of Health shall be responsible for collecting and/or disposing of animal carcasses,” Bedminister said.
She also cited the law that created the Waste Management Authority, the Solid and Hazardous Waste Management Act, which defines “solid waste” to include animal carcasses. The Act says Health “is authorized to remove for proper disposal the carcasses of dead animals with assistance, when necessary, from Waste Management Authority or Department of Public Works.”
“The division of Environmental Health has been collecting animal carcasses for some time now because we also work in ensuring that people are not made ill by the environment,” Bedminister said. “However, it is clear that the intent of the V.I. Code is to treat animal carcasses as waste material. . . The Department of Health is not in the waste collection, disposal or management business – our department is responsible for public health.”
Bedminister and both the current and former directors of Environmental Health said they have been trying to get legislation that will clarify the existing law.
Francine Lang, the former director, said she raised the issue in part because she was concerned about enforcement officers using the same vehicle to transport carcasses that they use to make restaurant inspections. She wrote the governor asking that the current law be amended to state clearly that actual disposal is WMA’s responsibility.
She left the position as director two years ago so it is at least that long ago that the issue of the unclear law was raised. “We’re still working with our attorney and their (WMA’s) attorney to clarify it,” she said.
Saunders concurred talks are in the works, and said Public Works is also in the mix. “It is an issue that is ongoing by the three agencies.”
So, who should you call?
While the matter of jurisdiction is still being resolved, Environmental Health Director Romeo Christopher said you can call his division. Saunders said you may call WMA on St. Croix or Public Works on St. Thomas (where WMA does not yet have the necessary equipment.)
Do NOT call the Agriculture Department. Agriculture has responsibility for unattended livestock and large animals such as cattle and horses that stray onto roads or other public areas. However, Dr. Bethany Bradford, director of veterinary services for Agriculture, said, “We are not responsible for dead animals. . . We handle the live ones.”