December 23, 2012

Off the leash

Should animal control laws be tougher?

Rachel Brown

— Holly Powers doesn’t hate pit bulls.

She just doesn’t want to be chased by one that runs loose around the neighborhood, sending those in its path sprinting for safety.

Powers, who lives in a neighborhood in Rocky Face, said she’s spent the past several months in fear of her neighbor’s pit bull who, until recently, was not kept in a pen. Efforts to reach the dog’s owner were unsuccessful. Powers said the dog ran toward her several times and at her children, dog and neighbors at other times.

Whitfield County Animal Control responded, but much to Powers’ dismay, she was told the penalties for owners who let their dogs run loose were far less strict than she expected. For a dog such as the one that charged her, even if an animal control officer picked it up, the owner would have 10 days to claim the dog and take it back home again as long as certain requirements for its upkeep were met.

While Powers wasn’t bitten, as a dog-bite victim involving another canine several years ago, she wishes laws were in place to prevent a dog from coming back to its owner if it bites even one time — if the owner has been warned before.

“I just think they should have stricter leash laws,” she said.

Powers said she’s in the process of contacting county authorities about more stringent requirements.

There is already a state law in place making it more difficult than before for the owner of a dangerous dog to retrieve the animal. Before the law that took effect this year, if an animal was declared a dangerous or vicious dog, the owner had to meet certain requirements for its upkeep, such as keeping it inside a double fence, posting signs warning people to beware of the dog and carrying $15,000 in insurance.

The insurance requirement has since been upped to $50,000. Dogs are classified as dangerous or vicious in a process that usually begins after a dog has bitten someone. Animal shelter Director Don Allen Garrett said he can remember only two people in the several years he’s worked there who had dangerous dogs and wanted to keep them rather than have them put down.

Mike Babb, Whitfield County Board of Commissioners chairman, said he occasionally fields complaints from people who believe the ordinances aren’t stringent enough, but he doesn’t believe more restrictions are the right answer.

“What we need is more people with just some common sense,” Babb said. “Don’t annoy your neighbors. Keep your dogs under control. Keep them on your property. In a perfect world you’d treat your neighbors like you’d want to be treated yourself. You wouldn’t make them feel unsafe in their own neighborhood.”

Yet there are owners who do make their neighbors feel unsafe, and while Powers said she’s glad her problems have been resolved, she wishes a resolution came sooner.

Sgt. Lee Amos, one of three animal control officers for the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office, said the county has an ordinance requiring animals be kept on a leash if they’re outside their owner’s property, but the number of people who don’t follow it is significant.

“I’ve asked that question (as to why they don’t follow the ordinance) for going on 10 years now,” Amos said. “Some of it is where people live at. They think, ‘I live out in the country. Why can’t my dog run loose?’”

Sometimes people are from cultures that have no such regulations, so they don’t realize there’s a problem, he said. Garrett said there are many people who leave their dogs behind when they move away rather than making provisions for them. Then there are others who, for whatever reason, just don’t take the time and consideration to keep their dogs from roaming.

While Powers said the problems seem to have been resolved since animal control came out for the most recent visit, she said those authorities visited her neighborhood at least three times this year before the violations stopped.

The county’s ordinances allow owners who let their dogs loose to be fined, but stiffer penalties aren’t incurred until a dog has physically attacked someone. Powers said she’s been chased numerous times to the point that she and her children, 7 and 11, were afraid to leave their home without something to protect them nearby.

Laws have become easier to enforce since people tend to respect someone with a uniform, badge and sheriff’s office decal on their vehicle more than they did the former ordinance enforcers, Babb said.

State laws have become increasingly strict in the past year. A newly added provision allows for sentencing the owner of a dog that has caused “serious injury” to a person who violates the conditions of having a dangerous dog more than once for up to 10 years in prison with a fine of between $5,000 and $10,000. The owner would also have to pay to have the dog euthanized.

Locally, owners can face fines up to several hundred dollars depending on how many times they’ve violated the ordinance, and they may also have to pay a fee to the animal shelter for upkeep of their dog. The shelter keeps and watches the dog for 10 days after a reported bite to determine if it has a disease, such as rabies, and to observe its disposition for possible classification as a dangerous dog, officials said.

To contact an animal control officer, call the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office at (706) 278-1233.