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TOP SECRET ANIMAL ATTACK FILES
from The Benicia News
Dangerous dogs get city's attention
BENICIA - Borrowing
from Solano County law, city officials have adopted a hearing procedure
to resolve -- and possibly prevent -- cases of dogs attacking people
or other animals.
Convicted owners would have to ensure secure confinement of dogs, and some may have to pay for implanting an identifying microchip into their pet.
City Attorney Heather McLaughlin urged the council to adopt the county procedure just to get something on the books. The council concurred, but Councilman Tom Campbell said the city must address an apparent contradiction that allows residents to keep animals that have been determined dangerous by paying an annual $50 fee. Campbell said it was contrary to his thinking that keeping an animal determined dangerous would be allowed.
The procedures will come back to the council for modifications, and to consider placing them in the municipal code, McLaughlin said. It may be then that a distinction between "dangerous" and "vicious" is clarified.
Robert Linton, director of the Solano County Animal Shelter said the case of the Dianne Whipple mauling in San Francisco last year has made people more aware. Also, insurance concerns have upped the ante.
"No one wants to be on the end of liability," he said. "The dog doesn't even have to bit any more" to trigger a hearing.
Whether or not the actual number of dog attacks or provocations are increasing, there are inherent troubles, as any cartoon watcher can attest. Whether it's the proverbial mail carrier's dilemma or Spike chasing kitty up a tree, situations can get out of control and result in injury or worse.
"If it's got teeth, fangs, claws, or talons, it can do damage," said Bonnie Marks, director of the Humane Animal Services in Solano County, which has jurisdiction in Vacaville, Fairfield, Suisun, Dixon and Rio Vista. Ordinances in those cities have gone a long way toward protecting the public, dogs and dog owners.
"We've had ours on the books for several years now," said Marks, who is a hearing officer. "They ensure the communities that there's a process to ensure their public safety. I think the public is happy. We're looking at public safety and we're also looking out for the owner's liability."
In the past seven years or so, there have been only about three hearings in Marks' five cities where recommendations were made that a dog be destroyed. Before killing any animal, the owner must be given 14 days notice, during which the owner can appeal. About 30 to 35 percent of hearings are resolved with a dog not being deemed dangerous, Marks said.
"Sometimes it turns out (the victim) will say, 'If you'd just secure your fence or keep him on a leash when he's outside you yard, I'm fine with that.'"
Just as cities and dog owners want to stay out of court, animal control officers want to avoid hearings. Often, when assured that an owner has provided proper kenneling, "we'll bypass the hearing," said Linton.
A "dangerous dog" designation may have much to do with how the animal is being kept or treated, and is not intended to label an animal "vicious," Marks said. But a finding of "dangerous" could result in requirements to keep a dog in a locked enclosure, or it could require that a dog receive a micro-chip and permanently wear a "Dangerous Dog" tag.
The microchips, about the size of a grain of rice, are injected between a dog's shoulder blades. When scanned, the chip identifies the dog and its owner. The information can be used to reunite owners with lost dogs.
"It's also a way to place culpability and responsibility on the owner," Marks said. "There are a lot of good reasons for it."
The county ordinance can require owners to post on their property a sign that reads, "Beware of Dangerous Animal" in letters at least three inches high. It's uncertain if that kind of requirement will be included in Benicia's code. Other areas that could be modified include a Solano County provision that any owner convicted after their animal bites, attacks or injures a person or another animal can't own that type of animal for three years.
The county code also requires that the sale or any other transfer of a dangerous dog within the county is prohibited, and sale or transfer outside the county requires written approval of the Solano County animal control director.
Beyond the written letter of the law, animal control officers try to see issues from multiple perspectives, considering the position of pet owners and potential victims. Part of that is realizing that no matter how well trained, dogs are potentially troublesome.
"We equate pets as family," said Marks. "Unfortunately we attribute human characteristics to them. If you are not within sight or reach, you can't always guarantee that the animal -- or child -- will behave the way you want them to."
Whether people are unnecessarily afraid of dogs or mistakenly assured that their dog won't cause any trouble, circumstances define each situation, Marks said.
"A big part of out time is spent educating people," Marks said. "(A dog) could jump up on somebody. You could step off a curb or take other evasive action. You could keel over with a heart attack if one of those big things jumped on you."
Certain breeds, such as pit bulls, Rottweilers and presa canarios, have mean reputations, in no small part because of attacks like the infamous 2001 fatal mauling in a San Francisco apartment building.
"After the Diane Whipple situation, people are very leery of certain breeds -- because of the media coverage," Marks said.
Actually, the most frequent breeds to bite are German shepherds, which were bred to guard territory and property, she said. From toy poodle to Great Dane, it's best for both dogs and people that they don't have chance encounters. Locked gates keep people out and pets in.
"I tell everyone, regardless of what breed of dog you have, put a padlock on your gate," Marks said. "Make those arrangements with the meter reader or whoever" may need to come inside a gate.
She also recommends using newer muzzles to protect not only the public, but to minimize the possibility of a dog being labeled dangerous.
"They aren't the old Hannibal Lecter-type things," she said. "The animal can open its mouth enough to breath and it can even drink water with it on. To me it says they not only care about my safety, they also care about their pet."
Meanwhile, Vallejo is redrafting its ordinance to make the hearing process less ambiguous. It is due to come to the Vallejo City Council for consideration before the end of the year.
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