Vicious dog ordinance keeping county busy

Frequent enforcement raises questions about criminal activity

A county ordinance has led to the euthanization of 23 dangerous and vicious dogs. The owner of the boxer shown above says his dog is protective, not vicious.

A total of 23 dangerous and vicious dogs have been euthanized since the beginning of 2004 under a county ordinance designed to protect people and other animals from aggressive canines.

The numbers in the new Lawrence Humane Society report came as a surprise to county commissioners, but also were taken as a sign of the drug and gang activity in the community.

“I would say the majority, more than the majority of it, is related to that,” County Commissioner Jere McElhaney said. “I would not be hesitant to attribute 80 to 85 percent of these cases as drug- or crime-related.”

McElhaney said that’s a good reason for the county to continue to keep the ordinance on the books and possibly add other provisions. He said if gang members and drug dealers learn that they can’t easily keep their fighting dogs in Douglas County, they may go elsewhere.

“That’s one of the big goals,” McElhaney said.

Midge Grinstead, executive director of the humane society, said she agreed many of the animals picked up under the ordinance are bred for dog fights, which are popular in the gang culture.

Grinstead said the ordinance had been a big help getting dangerous dogs off the street. Prior to the ordinance’s approval in late 2003, Grinstead and animal control officers had few ways to go onto a person’s property and take a dog. Dogs generally could only be captured if they were found roaming the streets or were on someone else’s property.

The new ordinances give animal control officers the ability to enter, with a law enforcement officer, and seize the dog if there have been complaints that the dog attacked a person or another pet – or if the dog attempted to make an attack.

“We rely on complaints from people,” Grinstead said. “We rely on people saying, ‘We’re trying to have a picnic in our backyard and the dog next door is trying its best to come through the fence and eat us alive.’ People have a right to not live in fear.”

The county ordinances do not target specific dog breeds, but pit bulls have by far been the most common breed euthanized. According to Grinstead’s figures, 17 of the 23 dogs have been pit bulls. McElhaney, though, said that is only because those dogs have been popular among dog fighters. Other breeds euthanized include shepherds, Akitas, Huskies, Catahoulas, Shar-Peis and Labs.

New ordinance sought

Grinstead said she was confident the ordinance was having a positive impact on public safety. She estimated the number of bite cases – which normally number about 50 per year countywide – have dropped by 10 percent to 15 percent.

“The only problem I can see is that people are hiding these dogs much better now,” Grinstead said. “But even that is good for the community because it means they are in places where they’ll be less likely to attack someone.”

McElhaney said he wants county commissioners to consider an ordinance that would make it tougher to hide dogs. He’s proposing the county create an ordinance that would make it illegal for dogs to be kept on property not occupied by the dogs’ owners. The provision wouldn’t prohibit commercial kennels that go through the proper zoning process.

How it works

The county has two separate dog ordinances. The dangerous dog ordinance is used to cite dog owners after an animal’s first attempt to attack a person or pet. The offending dogs can be returned to their owners but must be kept in a 6-foot-high kennel or on a 4-foot leash. When not in a kennel, the dog must be muzzled. Owners can be fined up to $200 for a first offense.

The vicious dog ordinance is for dogs cited more than once or which have been cited for an attack and are found to have been raised as a fighting dog. Vicious dogs can be euthanized. Owners can be fined $500 or receive 90 days in jail for a first offense. Both types of cases are tried in either Lawrence Municipal Court or Douglas County District Court.

McElhaney said he had concerns some gangs may be renting vacant rural property to house and train dogs “out of the limelight of the city.” He also said some rural property owners may be keeping hunting dogs or other dogs on vacant property.

McElhaney said the situation was not a good one because if the dogs begin to bark, there is no one there to control them. And if the animals become hurt or need medical attention, there is no one to attend them.

“I just think domestic animals should be in areas where their owners are,” McElhaney said.

But county commissioners have been urged by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department to study the issue more before passing such a law. The Sheriff’s Department has expressed concern that the ordinance could be difficult to enforce because there could be disputes about what constitutes vacant property and because some farmers use dogs to guard livestock located away from their homes.

McElhaney said he didn’t want the issue to be dropped.

“I know it would be a new concept for law enforcement, but I think we should keep working on it,” McElhaney said.