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Friend of fur
Ed Franceschina brings a love of animals to his job as director of Missoula Animal Control. The new Animal Control shelter can house 30 cats while they wait to return home or to be adopted. Leo was one of them this week.
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Ed Franceschina says his new job as director of Missoula Animal Control is, in many ways, the one he has always wanted

Ed Franceschina never intended to be the director of an animal shelter and law enforcement agency.

Then he met Max. The rest is history.

Franceschina was most recently the project manager for planning and construction at the University of Montana for 5 1/2 years. His last project was the Washington-Grizzly Stadium expansion. Before that, he had an Air Force career, during which he worked in power plants, and then worked in the private sector with defense contractors.

Max, a sheltie of unknown age, was in the newspaper three years ago as a found and unclaimed dog at Missoula Animal Control. Franceschina's wife saw the ad. Max went home with them.

The couple started volunteering at Animal Control. They liked what the department was doing and how they were doing it. During the summer, previous director Paula Nelson left to move out of state. The job was open.

"I was working at the university," said Franceschina, who also has five German shepherds at home. "I was happy, perfectly happy there. But this is something I really like."

He realized that in some ways it was the job he always wanted.

"This is really what I like to do," he said. "I like to work with the animals."

His previous career is not that far a stretch from his new one, he said.

For one, "You can't be in the military for 20-plus years and not have some respect for order," he said. "And I do."

And "animal lover" and "law enforcer" do go together, he said.

"I'm animal-oriented," he said. "Law enforcement is part of it. They need our help, and that's the only way they can get it - cruelty laws, enforcement laws. Animals are just absolute priority here. We really care about them."

"I do like the law enforcement part because it gives us a chance to make a difference and become proactive."

Franceschina (say Frances-sheena; it's Italian) took the helm of Animal Control's shiny-new building past the airport on Butler Creek Road in September. The difference from the old headquarters is remarkable, said Jim Carlson, environmental health director at the Missoula City-County Health Department and Franceschina's boss.

Finding the old Missoula Animal Control center involved a plunging turn off North Reserve Street and a twisting course around sewer gas flares and compost piles that ended at a 50-year-old shed that served as shelter and office. The odor was frankly sewer. An expansion of the wastewater treatment plant forced the move to Butler Creek, where the atmosphere is spacious and bright.

"The other building I think gave people the feeling of being in Doggie Dachau," Carlson said. "It was kind of ramshackle and not a good situation for getting to know a dog."

Now, he said, "It's a better situation for the animals, it's a better situation for the staff, it's a better situation for the public. So it's a triple win. It's a pretty good atmosphere out there."

This spring, the landscaping will be finished, and people will be able to take dogs outside.

The new shelter can house 30 cats instead of eight. Visits from the public are up.

"When we moved here, we thought it was a little out of the way," Franceschina said. "But we've had a lot of people in here to look at the animals. We're doing so well out here."

Franceschina inherited a job that's big and challenging. He, four officers and two shelter staff cover 2,600 square miles to enforce animal laws and ensure animal safety. Last year, they responded to 2,633 calls. They did it on a budget of $432,000.

Last year, they dealt with 838 dogs, 262 cats and 54 other animals. Sixty-six percent of the dogs were reunited with their owners, and 28 percent were adopted out. Ten percent of the cats returned home, and 42 percent found new homes. Six percent of dogs and around 47 percent of the cats were euthanized or were dead when officers picked them up.

The most common call at Animal Control is complaints about barking dogs. A chronic barking dog problem can end up in Municipal Court, the dog branded a "nuisance dog" and the human drawing a fine of up to $500 and six months in jail.

"But we certainly encourage people to talk to their neighbor," Franceschina said. "There's lots of problems that can be solved that way."

Franceschina and the staff encourage a nonviolent approach to all animal problems. Off-leash and at-large dogs are problems and draw a lot of calls in the city and out in the county. Shooting dogs, as has happened in at least one at-large case recently, is not a solution and is usually not legal.

"There's always a better way," Franceschina said. "If there's a dog chasing anything, or any problem with a dog, we should be called."

Animal Control is able to answer 99 percent of its calls within one day, he said.

State law allows the killing of dogs when they are harassing or damaging livestock or poultry. Only the owner of the livestock or his agent can kill them and only when they are on the livestock owner's property. Dogs cannot be legally shot for simply being at large, said Deputy County Attorney Martha McClain.

Franceschina is also overseeing the ongoing pet census that Animal Control hopes to finish during the coming summer. In door-to-door surveys, they're counting pets, doing public education and encouraging people to license their dogs.

"A lot of people say they don't really know they should," Franceschina said. "We all pay part of our taxes for animals, but the licensing is so important. Without that, we wouldn't do a lot. We depend on it."

This fiscal year, Animal Control expects to collect $88,000 in license fees, Carlson said.

"We do need to do this in a positive way and not a threatening way," Franceschina said. "Not only legally do we need to do it, it's the right thing to do. I guess we have to appeal to people's better sides. Just come in here with a smile and leave with a smile."

Franceschina, who spends his vacation time showing his German shepherds in confirmation and obedience, joined a staff with longevity; some of them have been at Animal Control more than 20 years.

"We want to be customer-oriented," he said. "And we want people to have good experiences with us. People pay us to do a good job. And we do do a good job. Every person here is very caring."

Reporter Ginny Merriam can be reached at 523-5251 or gmerriam@missoulian.com.

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