Rash of vicious dog attacks raises questions on need for stricter control laws

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Rash of vicious dog attacks raises questions on need for stricter control laws

By KYLE PETERSON kpeterson@beaufortgazette.com 843-706-8147
Published Saturday, February 26, 2011   |  1103 Words  |  

A string of vicious dog attacks has some residents asking whether Beaufort County should tighten its animal-control laws.

In December, a Bluffton woman and her dog were set upon by two separate, roaming pit bulls in two different incidents.

On Feb. 17, a 3-year-old girl was mauled by a pit bull.

Last weekend, a bull mastiff clamped down on a toddler's leg and tried to drag the child beneath a fence, according to Port Royal police.

Beaufort County officials have no immediate plans to revise the laws.

Public safety director William Winn said his department is in "a constant state of reviewing what we do," but he does not have changes to recommend at this point.

At least one County Council member, though, thinks recent events make serious discussion unavoidable.

"I think it will come up," said Councilman Rick Caporale, "but I'm not sure where it will go or what we want to do with it."

FEE DILEMMA

The pit bull that attacked 3-year-old Daniella Ramirez last week had been impounded twice in the past two months, according to animal-control officials.

But the dog and another pit bull were released to their owner after he paid related fines and fees.

"I don't understand why they kept giving the dogs back," the girl's father, Oscar Ramirez, said Thursday.

There is little officials can do in such cases, according to Staff Sgt. Patti Wright, animal-control spokeswoman. County rules stipulate that if a person can prove ownership and pay impound fees, officers have no choice but to return the animals, Wright said.

The fee to reclaim an impounded animal is $50 for the first offense, $125 for the second and $250 for each one after that. For impounded pets that are not spayed or neutered, their owners have two choices: the animal must either be sterilized or the owner must pay an "intact animal fine" -- $200 for the first offense in a calendar year and $1,000 for subsequent offenses.

In November, the fees -- though not the fine -- were twice as high. Council approved a reduction to make pet redemption more affordable in a bad economy, meeting minutes show.

The county's animal-control department services the entire county and its fines and fees apply regardless of where an animal is picked up. However, municipalities within the county can make their own laws about keeping animals.

Winn said it's too early to tell whether the reduced fees have resulted in an increase in repeat offenders. But he thinks the fees are high enough to discourage irresponsibility.

"I think $50 -- for most people -- gets their attention. If not, the $125 does," Winn said. "By the time you get to the third one, of $250, there's some people who say, 'No, just keep the animal.' "

Caporale said setting the correct fee means being fair to responsible owners, penalizing irresponsible ones and reducing euthanasia.

About 4,600 animals were admitted to the shelter last year, Winn said. More than half -- 2,862 -- were euthanized. That figure includes feral cats. About 1,100 dogs were put down.

Raising the impound fee might discourage irresponsible ownership, but it could increase the shelter's kill rate by leaving more animals in county hands.

"(The fee) has to be a deterrent, but you don't want it to be an overwhelming obstacle," Caporale said. "Otherwise, you've locked yourself into killing more dogs."

POLICY PROBLEMS

Other possible solutions raise as many questions as answers.

Elaine Anderson, who owns the mobile home park where the Ramirez family lives, has suggested county officials consider banning ownership of pit bulls.

After the December attacks in Bluffton, Toni Lytton, director of Beaufort County Animal Shelter and Control, said pit-bull bites tend to be more severe than those of other dogs.

"They can lock their jaws and tear you up pretty good," she said.

Trainers and animal rescue groups, though, argue a dog's breed doesn't cause a violent temperament.

"My experience has been, bad dogs are usually a result of really bad owners," said Amy Campanini, executive director of the Palmetto Animal League in Beaufort County. "They are a product of what we make them."

Even violent dogs can sometimes be saved, Campanini said. The pit bulls owned by football superstar Michael Vick, who went to prison on dog-fighting charges, have been rehabilitated and adopted into new homes, she said.

But a mandatory spay and neuter policy, requiring animals picked up by the shelter to be sterilized, could help, Campanini said.

"It might cut down on some of that aggressive behavior," she said.

Such a mandatory policy could be problematic, county administrator Gary Kubic said. Where are the limits of county authority? How strong are owners' property rights when it comes to pets?

And would a disgruntled owner challenge such a rule in court?

CAUTION URGED

Caporale said he would like to discuss animal control in County Council's Public Safety Committee. However, that debate is probably several months away because other issues already are on the table.

Council members will hold their annual planning retreat this week and plan to focus on the budget. The Public Safety Committee is considering a towing ordinance in the wake of a deadly Christmas Eve shooting near Bluffton involving a tow truck driver and a vehicle owner.

What's more, moving too quickly could produce unintended consequences, Caporale said.

"You don't want to overreact," he said. "It's hard to say what would have prevented the incident in Port Royal."

Winn, the public safety director, has another concern. Any new ordinance can't be all-encompassing, he said, and won't address every situation that arises.

"You can't set a standard for every single event, because every event is a little different," he said.

Beyond that, the biggest contributor to animal-control problems -- irresponsible owners -- is perhaps the most difficult to solve.

"I'm not sure that you can ever do away with irresponsible pet owners," Campanini said. "I think the best we can do is maybe spend more time on the law enforcement side and make sure that we're reducing the amount of animal abuse and neglect."

Staff writer Patrick Donohue contributed to this report.