Tougher animal control ordinance sought

November 02, 1997


Staff Writer

Kimberly Carson was standing in her home on North Potomac Street last November when she heard a growl coming from the front porch. She called to her husband Lon and looked out the front door to see a pit bull chomping on the family's all-white pet cat, Frosty.

The Carsons immediately jumped to the cat's defense. Lon grabbed the dog by the throat and flung it out of the family's fenced-in yard.

The dog jumped back over the fence two more times, attacking the cat and literally ripping its guts out as the Carsons' children - Christine, then 8, and Kelly, then 4 - watched in horror.


The dog also bit Kimberly's left hand close to the bone and nipped Lon as well. Lon finally sat on the dog until police came.

The killing of Frosty was upsetting enough. But what happened next got the Carsons really steamed.

After depositing the dog in the back seat of a Hagerstown police cruiser, the police turned the dog over to the Washington County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which returned the dog an hour later to the dog's owner.

Kimberly remembers her husband telling her about it while she was in the emergency room at Washington County Hospital.

"He had tears in his eyes," she said. "I said `Oh my God, you're kidding.' I was mad. I just don't understand why they just didn't get rid of it."

Kimberly said she worried that the dog would kill the family's other cat, or even harm her children.

The Carsons say the pit bull later attacked several other animals in the neighborhood. It was eventually destroyed in August after it was picked up by the SPCA while fighting with a Sharpei dog and the owner failed to claim the dog.

SPCA's hands tied

SPCA Executive Director Shelly Moore says the SPCA isn't authorized to detain or destroy vicious or nuisance dogs under the county's Animal Control Ordinance - even if they kill other animals - unless the SPCA officer witnesses them running loose. Even then, the SPCA can impound the animal only until it is claimed by the owner. All they can do is issue a $10 fine and order the animal quarantined for 10 days at the owner's home if it bites someone, Moore said.

Moore has proposed that the Washington County Commissioners appoint a new Animal Control Authority independent of the SPCA with the power to fine owners of nuisance animals, order the animals confined indoors at certain hours or seize and destroy animals at its discretion after holding a public hearing.

Moore said the SPCA receives calls daily from people upset by barking dogs or other nuisances, and said citizens should have a place to go to air their complaints. Since July 1, SPCA workers have made 73 house calls to deal with nuisance complaints, but that doesn't count the number of calls that the agency receives but doesn't have time to answer.

Officials divided

The proposal has gathered dust at the county over the summer but changes to the animal control ordinance could be discussed in the next few weeks, officials said.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said a citizen board would be a good step for giving people an avenue for making complaints. "Right now they really don't know who to call ... . We need to do something so that when there is a complaint it is acted upon."

The existing Animal Contol Authority, which hasn't been active since at least January, didn't have the power to deal with complaints effectively, Moore said.

County Commissioner James R. Wade said he agreed that something needs to be done about enforcement, but didn't know if creating another board was the right way to go.

"I see the day coming soon where the county will take over SPCA-type duties," Wade said.

A county employee would then have the responsibility for enforcing a beefed-up ordinance.

County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers said he didn't support a citizens board having the power to enforce a beefed-up law. Bowers said that power could be abused. Bowers said he would prefer to give the SPCA the power to enforce a stronger nuisance law if changes are needed.

But Moore said SPCA officers "shouldn't be the judge, jury and executioner."

Commissioners Vice President John S. Shank said he wanted to see the proposal in writing before commenting on it, but said any enforcement of a nuisance ordinance would prove difficult.

"You can't control dogs from barking or cats from walking across other people's yards."

Commissioner R. Lee Downey said he wanted to hear more from the public before supporting any changes.

Rights infringed?

Angie Harsh, a former chairwoman of the Animal Control Authority, said she was concerned the proposal would put too much power in the hands of a few people and endanger the property rights of pet owners. She said the possibility of having one's dog confiscated and destroyed was especially disturbing.

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