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Rotterdam looks to put some teeth in dog law

Board to consider jail time for owners of vicious animals

Wednesday, May 15, 2013
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— In only a few moments, Samson was involved in two vicious attacks in the vicinity of Evergreen Avenue.

The mixed-breed pit bull walked a short distance from his owner’s home and bit a woman twice as she stood on the porch of her residence. A short time later, the dog traveled several doors down to Pansy Street, where he again climbed the steps to a private residence and mauled a German shepherd residing there.

Rotterdam’s animal control officer issued civil citations to the owner in both instances, and the dog was ordered confined to his home until the case could be resolved in Town Court. Town Attorney Kate McGuirl was close to a resolution in the case earlier this month, when Samson got loose and attacked the German shepherd again, opening a wound that required staples to close.

Samson was ultimately surrendered and is scheduled to be euthanized. His owner admitted to one count of having a dangerous dog, paid a $350 fine and agreed to restitution, but never faced any jail time.

In other municipalities, vicious dog ordinances would have allowed officials to impound Samson after his first attacks. But without one, town officials had to rely on a more lenient state law, a civil code that includes no criminal penalty for owners allowing vicious dogs to run free.

“Perhaps the possibility of jail time would have been enough of a deterrent for the defendant to take the court order regarding confinement more seriously and thus preventing a second incident,” McGuirl said Wednesday.

Town Board members are now considering broad changes to Rotterdam’s animal control law that would include added enforcement measures and criminal penalties for those who allow vicious dogs to roam loose. In specific, the law gives the town’s animal control officer and police the ability to deem a dog vicious and have it immediately impounded, pending a court hearing.

Under the proposed legislation, a town justice could determine a dog to be vicious and order it destroyed if the owner is unwilling to meet a strict set of standards aimed at protecting the public and reducing liability. These standards include obtaining a collar from the town designating the dog as vicious, securing $100,000 in liability insurance, keeping the animal muzzled on a leash no longer than three feet when in public and having the animal sterilized.

First-time violators of the vicious dog ordinance face as much as 15 days in jail and fines of as much as $1,000. Second offenses committed within a period of five years are punishable by as much as six months in prison and fines of as much as $2,500, according to the draft legislation.

“The law should act as a deterrent to the handful of irresponsible dog owners who are allowing their dogs to wreak havoc and injury and give the town the legal tools to act when local law doesn’t deter this sort of behavior,” McGuirl said.

Town Supervisor Harry Buffardi said most of the town’s dog owners are responsible with their animals. The few who aren’t, however, present a problem for the public unless police and the animal control officer have the ability to promptly take them into custody.

“It will give us more teeth in the law,” he said.

The amended law also strengthens the penalties for residents who don’t clean up after their dogs. First-time violations are subject to fines of no less than $250, with repeat offenders facing fines upward of $750 or even banishment of the offending pet.

Buffardi said the penalties are in line with other communities in the Capital Region. He said the animal control officer also would have the discretion of letting violators off with a warning.

The proposed changes also would eliminate the town’s cat ordinance. The law was implemented in 2002, when town officials took a stab at reducing the feral cat population and included provisions requiring owners to pay a one-time registration fee of $5 for spayed or neutered cats and $35 for unaltered animals.

But the law was almost impossible to enforce because of the difficulty of distinguishing the difference between the town’s feral and domesticated cat populations. Stray animals seized by the town ultimately needed to be boarded at shelters at taxpayer expense. Few residents bothered to register their pets, either, and about a decade after the law was passed, fewer than two dozen cats were on file with the town.

“Pardon the pun, but enforcing it was like herding cats,” Buffardi said of the legislation.

A public hearing on the new ordinance is scheduled for the Town Board’s meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Town Hall.

 
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