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WEDNESDAY, MAY 23, 2007
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Dangerous dogs could be detained under bill

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com 340-2443

A weakness in the state law regarding dangerous animals often allows potentially rabid dogs to roam free for weeks after an attack, said Decatur Animal Shelter Director Mindy Gilbert.

Officials cannot take an animal into custody without court approval, a process that usually takes 20 to 30 days, even if that animal has bitten a small child, she said.

That could change if the state Legislature passes a bill sponsored by Sen. Myron Penn, D-Union Springs, and Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

The bill would allow law enforcement officials around the state to detain a dangerous dog and provide for court hearings on whether the dog should be
euthanized.

It also provides for charging owners with a Class C felony if a dog declared dangerous kills or severely wounds a person, and a Class A misdemeanor if the owner failed to take steps to prevent it.

The bill defines a "dangerous dog" as "a dog, regardless of its breed, that has bitten, attacked or injured a person or domestic animal without provocation."

Most importantly, said Gilbert, the bill would allow animal control or police officers to take a dangerous animal into custody until the court can determine if the dog needs to be taken from the home permanently.

"From the time of an attack, there is not a provision right now for that animal to be secured and further prevent the public from another incident," she said.

"If it's a stray, we can pick it up, and the Health Department will tell us what to do, but the problem is if the animal is owned."

Health departments are responsible for ensuring that a dog that has bitten someone is taken to a veterinarian, quarantined and tested for rabies, but the current procedure is slow. Sometimes, a non-stray dog isn't picked up or treated for nearly two weeks after an attack, said Lawrence County Animal Control Officer Carolyn Atchison.

The Lawrence County Health Department received 25 notifications of dog bites last year with seven bites occurring in May.

According to Lawrence County Health Department Environmentalist Carrie Warren, the department doesn't send an employee to pick up the dog, but mails a letter giving the owner 10 days to bring the dog to a veterinarian.

If the owner doesn't comply, the health department sends another letter and charges the owner a fine.

The subsequent court case can take 20 to 30 days, said Gilbert, plenty of time for the dog to attack again.

The proposed bill would authorize officers to immediately impound the dog at the owner's expense if they determine the animal poses an immediate threat, following an initial investigation.

Animal control officers would also be allowed to destroy a dog after 10 days if it severely injures or kills a person, and the officers believe the owner had prior knowledge of the dog's vicious propensities. The 10-day holding period would give the owner time to request a due process hearing.

Owners of a dog classified as dangerous could either have it destroyed, or, in less severe cases, choose to keep it under certain conditions.

The bill would require owners of dangerous dogs to register them annually with the animal control officer, confine them to a "proper enclosure" when not attended by an adult and neuter or spay them.

When outdoors, the owner would have to muzzle the dog and keep it on a leash no longer than six feet.

Gilbert said she fears the bill, like similar ones before it, won't make it through the Legislature. The Dangerous Dog Act of 2006 passed the House Judiciary Committee, but never made the calendar for the full House.

However, there is nothing keeping counties or municipalities from enacting their own ordinances, protecting residents from dangerous dogs, she said.

Officials in Lawrence County and Moulton discussed doing that after Atchison requested authority from the County Commission to reprimand vicious-dog owners last week.

"Lawrence County commissioners should be concerned about the liability for not having a provision in place," said Gilbert. "There have already been two children attacked and killed this year, and it can happen anywhere, especially a rural area like Lawrence County."

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