Depending who you ask, Ferree Kennels, in McKeesport, is either a mom-and-pop operation just trying to uphold the law ... or a house of horrors where innocent cats and dogs die grisly deaths. Feral cats and stray dogs are killed there after being taken off the streets.
"We are against all forms of capture and kill," says Candice Zawoiski of Voices for Animals of Western Pennsylvania, one group that opposes Ferree Kennels' animal-control contracts. "There are other methods available. They should not be killing animals as a solution."
The kennel, run by Ken Ferree, has animal-control contracts with more than two dozen municipalities outside Pittsburgh, including West Mifflin, Homestead and Versailles. Ferree picks up stray and feral cats and dogs; if no owner claims the animal, the animal has no identification, and no shelter space is available, he euthanizes it. By state law, dogs must be held for at least 48 hours before they may be euthanized. But there is no required holding time for cats, and Ferree euthanizes them by the end of the business day. Also upsetting to animal-rights activists is the method he uses: asphyxiation with carbon monoxide.
Asphyxiation is "definitely legal," says Dena Fitzgerald, operations director at the Animal Rescue League -- but it remains controversial. Gassing animals is "considerably less humane, because the animal does have the feeling that they are suffocating," Fitzgerald says.
The ARL euthanizes pets by injecting them with sodium pentobarbitol, a method preferred by the Humane Society and other groups. "Injection is not hard to learn to do humanely. It causes the animal the least amount of stress and pain," she says.
The ARL has itself been at the center of a well-publicized controversy involving its contract with the City of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh officials have begun talking about contracting with animal-control services outside the city ... but if Ferree is any indication, animal control can be controversial anywhere.
A loose collective of animal lovers has been campaigning against Ferree for years. In December 2006, they collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition that eventually cost Ferree his contract with McKeesport.
One activist, and a major impetus behind the McKeesport decision, Carolyn Leitzell, has tangled with Ferree in court. She posted a placard on her fence at her home in Versailles, warning residents to keep their animals close at hand because Ferree would catch them and break their necks. Ferree filed suit against her, though the case was eventually dismissed.
Ferree's work for Forward Township has been suspended for two months, according to township secretary Pam Balogh, because of a resident's complaint about his brusque demeanor. Township supervisors will decide whether to reinstate Ferree's contract at a June 7 meeting
Prior to that decision, on the drizzly afternoon of June 3, protesters held a demonstration at Ferree's kennel, opposing his new contract with West Elizabeth. Roughly 20 protesters -- and a huge, drooling dog named Beethoven -- stood outside the nearly unmarked kennel.
The protesters held signs saying "Cruelty, thy name is Ferree" and "Stop Killing West Elizabeth Cats." Passing cars -- along with a Port Authority bus and a fire engine -- beeped in support.
Dede Luterman, of Squirrel Hill, acknowledged that housing feral cats can be a problem. "Some shelters have a kill policy. I can live with that," she said. But "gas is horrible."
"Euthanizing animals by gas pipe -- that's barbaric," agreed protester Sherry D'Antonio, of Versailles Borough. "I'm embarrassed to say I'm from Pittsburgh. It just has to change."
Others contend there is no reason for putting healthy animals down by any method. VFA's Zawoiski says that the group hopes municipalities like West Elizabeth would manage feral cats using a trap-neuter-release system instead.
About 45 minutes into the protest, a Dodge Durango pulled up, towing three motorcycles in a U-Haul trailer. Three men and two women emerged; "I'm Mr. Ferree!" one of them announced. One of the women from the truck yelled, "Keep the cats off the fucking streets!"
Ferree called McKeesport police; a van carrying three officers arrived within minutes. The officers secured a promise from the protesters not to block access to the kennel and then left.
Some protesters hurled insults at Ferree and his companions, calling them "white trash" and "fat ass." As Ferree backed the truck into the garage, he remarked, "I'm sorry; the fat ass can't hear you."
A few moments later, another pickup truck -- this one fitted out with cages lashed into the bed -- pulled up. It backed into the kennel and Ferree closed the garage doors. Some protesters claimed a dog had been in one of the cages and demanded to see it. Ferree refused; a protester called police back to the scene, but officers said they couldn't force Ferree to let them in.
In a phone interview that evening, Ferree said the protesters' ire was misdirected.
"Ever since cartoons were out, the dog-catcher has always been demonized," he says. The protesters are "animal radicals," Ferree says. "These are dangerous people; they only see with blinders on."
He says the problem lies with "the big R": responsibility on the part of pet owners. If owners kept closer tabs on their animals -- and had them spayed or neutered -- he wouldn't have to catch or euthanize them.
"This isn't Disney, they don't all have homes," Ferree says of the animals he catches. And often, euthanasia is the only option. "There is no magical pied piper who is going to come in and play his flute and lead the cats out of town."
He says there are differing opinions about the best method of euthanizing animals, adding, "I can't change the laws, I just enforce them." Ferree declined City Paper's request to tour his facility. But state officials inspect the kennel, unannounced, four times each year, and Ferree's last five inspection reports, available on the state Department of Agriculture Web site, give satisfactory reports. The most recent one, from Jan. 18, includes the comments "Kennel looks good. Very clean."