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Officer seeks action on 'dangerous' animals

By Kristen Bishop 340-2443

MOULTON — Lawrence County's animal control officer said she is outraged that a dangerous dog must bite a person before the county can intervene.

Carolyn Atchison has asked the County Commission to adopt a local ordinance letting her reprimand owners of dangerous dogs, but local officials said they aren't sure they have the authority.

County Attorney Cecil Caine said he will review state legislation and health department procedures this week and make a recommendation to the commission at its June 11 meeting.

Most animal control officers deal only with stray or neglected animals, but Atchison said she receives 10 calls a day from residents afraid of dogs near their homes and is frustrated by her inability to help them.

Atchison said residents would feel safer and attacks could be prevented if she could issue citations demanding owners of vicious dogs restrain their pets and could impound animals if their owners refuse to comply.

Like most rural counties, Lawrence County does not have a leash law.

"People move to the county because they want their dogs to run loose," she said. "But if it's chased someone two or three times, we should have the right to say, 'We've got three complaints on this dog, and we're giving you notice now that if you don't restrain it, we're going to pick it up.' "

In April, she asked the commission for the authority to pick up dogs immediately after they bite or attack someone, but she changed her request at the May commission meeting.

"If it's a bite, that's the Health Department's territory, but if people have reported a dog that has attacked another dog or threatened someone's life, we ought to be able to go to the owners and give them a notice," she said.

"We have countless dogs in our area that are chasing people. They haven't bitten them, but the potential is there. If a dog is running loose, threatening children and parents, we should have the right to go get that dog."

Liability issues

Caine said Tuesday that the commission would need to consider liability issues when authorizing any official to impound a dog or reprimand owners. The terms "dangerous" and "vicious" are too subjective and would need to be more clearly defined, he said.

"What's a vicious dog? The statute would have to explain that," he said. "A bite is a bite. If someone says a dog bit them, it's pretty overt. ... On the other hand, if a dog chased some kids, that's subject to interpretation."

Caine said a more reasonable action may be to adopt a local ordinance similar to the dangerous dog bill introduced this year by Sen. Myron Penn, D-Union Springs, and Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

The bill would establish a procedure for declaring a dog dangerous, provide for euthanizing a dangerous dog under certain conditions and establish requirements for keeping a dangerous dog.

At the Legislature's current pace, it seems unlikely the bill will pass this year, but Caine said a local act could breeze through with little discussion.

Lawrence County isn't the only county grappling with ways to protect its residents from potential dog attacks.

Mobile County voters passed a provision last year giving the county more say over animal control but limited county enforcement to civil, not criminal, court.

Mobile County Commissioner Stephen Nodine is now pushing for a local ordinance, similar to the one Atchison is requesting, that would give law enforcement officers the authority to take preventative action against dangerous dogs.

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