Some City Council members and residents are pushing for ways to stop persistent dog attacks in central Raleigh neighborhoods, a call that has not prompted any changes since the issue was raised in April.
After questions emerged at an April 3 council meeting about whether city laws are too weak compared to the county’s, Raleigh officials reported June 5 that the laws are virtually identical in how they handle treatment of animals.
But there is a difference in how much the owner is punished. The county slaps owners with up to $1,000 more in fines.
Residents say they understand change takes time, but they’re asking for help, and soon.
“The feeling among the people in my neighborhood is that what we have in Raleigh right now is not really adequately protective,” resident Sue Sturgis said. “I think people would be uneasy with a solution that involved no change.”
Looking for answers
It was the problems in Sturgis’ neighborhood just northeast of downtown that sparked the initial conversation. Residents say it’s common for aggressive dogs to chase homeowners and bite smaller pets. Some people won’t go for walks in the neighborhood or will only walk with sticks, resident Mike Dean said.
The East Citizens Advisory Council, which includes the neighborhood, approved a committee in its March meeting to identify problems in the city’s animal control ordinance, with many pointing to the county ordinance as an example they would like to see followed. The City Council asked City Attorney Tom McCormick to compare city and county policies.
In his most recent report to the council, McCormick said the city’s ordinance “has essentially the same provisions” as the county. He clarified Thursday that his report referred to a comparison of how the two ordinances require the animals to be handled after an attack, not punitive measures against the dog owners.
McCormick said Thursday that he has contacted Raleigh Police attorney Ashby Ray and asked him to review city ordinance with animal control staff to get their recommendations to determine whether changes in the law or further education are needed. There is no deadline for their report, McCormick said. He does not plan to give an update at Tuesday’s council meeting.
If changes are necessary, McCormick said, the law could be changed within one meeting because no public hearing is required.
Same crime, punishments vary
While both use state law as their foundation, county law is both more specific and more punitive than city ordinance.
For example, owners of dangerous dogs that bite humans in the county’s jurisdiction are fined $500 for the first offense, with the dog destroyed after a 10-day waiting period for possible appeal. For every subsequent violation by a dangerous dog from the same owner, the fine is $1,500. For dangerous dogs that kill or wound other domestic animals under the county’s jurisdiction, the consequences are the same, but fines are $250 for the first offense and $500 thereafter.
Those are civil penalties. Criminal charges are also possible.
In the city, when a dangerous dog bites another domestic animal or a person, it is both a civil and a criminal offense. The fine is up to $500 for a criminal violation, with civil penalties from $50 to $250.
For both the city and the county, the dog must first be deemed dangerous by animal control officials before fines take effect.
The city also prohibits public nuisance animals, which include dogs repeatedly found off-leash or “vicious” animals that repeatedly attack humans or other animals. However, vicious dogs are allowed to be kept for personal protection as long as they are securely confined. What constitutes secure confinement is not defined in city ordinance.
Neighbors say those measures are inadequate and leave them vulnerable. Two residents said they have had to perform their own repairs to their neighbor’s fence so they can feel safe in their backyard. County policy demands an enclosure with a top and a concrete base to prevent the animal’s escape.
Raleigh Animal Control Director Tracey Alford said the county’s ordinance is more stringent than both city ordinance and state law.
“If they could make (city ordinance) more strenuous, that would be my suggestion,” Alford said, though he recommended comparing efforts with other municipalities such as Wake County and Charlotte before making changes.
Council members react
Before passing new laws, the city should make sure animal control officers are enforcing rules already on the books, said Councilman Eugene Weeks. Officers ought to do more than just impound dangerous dogs, he said. They should also issue warnings and fines to owners who fail to keep their pets properly contained.
“What those controls would be, without getting too much into homeowners’ rights, is something the city attorney will have to work out,” Weeks said.
Weeks said he will be persistent in pushing the city to come up with solutions.
“I’m not going to let them forget about it,” he said. “Every month, I will ask the question and do a follow up at each City Council meeting until we come up with something. That way, I can keep bringing it to the front. Because it’s still a problem.”
Councilman Mary Ann Baldwin leads the City Council’s law and public safety committee, which has been dealing with the vicious dog regulations.
Baldwin was left befuddled by the vague nature of McCormick’s report. Baldwin said the City Council needs to hold more talks on the issue.
Baldwin was disturbed by a recent news story in The N&O that described how a pit bull remained with its current owner even after the animal attacked another dog. The alarming part, Baldwin said, is that a child was standing a few feet away when the attack occurred.
“That to me is a real problem,” she said. “I don’t know the answer to that, but it seems to me that if a dog attacks somebody, you need to be able to deal with that in an effective way. It doesn’t seem to be (happening now).”
The issue is a top priority to the area, said East CAC Chairman Emrys Treasure, and he’s surprised by the lack of concrete action so far by the council.
“We want to make sure this gets addressed, or at least considered in a thoughtful way, to the point where everyone’s concerns are satisfied,” Treasure said. “We are interested and engaged, and plan to remain so until we find a resolution that is respectful of the magnitude of the problem.”