By Scott Nicholson
The Watauga County commissioners adopted a new animal control ordinance after a year of discussion and revisions, putting a little more bite in dealing with potentially dangerous dogs.
The ordinance defines public nuisance and dangerous animals, and commission chairman Jim Deal said the public hearing process had provided good information and helped draft an ordinance that had a lot of input behind it. The ordinance grants enforcement powers for regulating wild and dangerous animals to the animal control department. A public nuisance is defined as an animal that damages property, attacks a person or other animal, chases or snaps at people or animals, or is otherwise a public danger.
A “dangerous dog” is one that has killed or inflicted severe injury on a person, has engaged in dangerous behaviors, or has been trained for dog fighting. A “potentially dangerous dog” is one that has inflicted a serious injury to a person, killed or injured another domestic animal, or approached someone in a vicious or threatening manner when not on the owner’s property. The ordinance grants the animal control department determination authority of conditions under which a potentially dangerous dog can be released to the owner.
The ordinance gives pet owners the option of installing an identifying microchip in the animal instead of using a collar or tag. Animals brought into the county must be vaccinated within one week of entering the county.
Two signed and detailed complaints are required before an investigation of a nuisance animal is triggered. Owners who violate the ordinance are subject to a $50 civil penalty. The ordinance outlines provisions for the county’s storage or destruction of seized animals.
The ordinance also toughens and broadens animal cruelty penalties. It’s now unlawful to leave an animal locked in a closed vehicle that threatens the animal’s life, and chained animals must have at least eight feet of chain with a swivel. Animal abandonment can lead to a misdemeanor charge.
The ordinance avoids controversial language that would appear to target specific breeds some consider to be more likely to be dangerous, but does make allowance for “an inherently dangerous animal.” It’s unlawful to keep a wild animal except for in licensed sanctuaries.
Pets are required to have an up-to-date rabies vaccination. Cats aren’t required to display tags, though the owner is required to have written evidence of inoculation.
The commissioners had previously discussed a spay-and-neuter ordinance but decided to make that a separate discussion and will likely hold public hearings on the issue later this year. Some animal advocates said such an ordinance would reduce the number of unwanted and abandoned pets and also lower the public cost of dealing with such animals.
Animal control officer Dave Simpkins said the new ordinance dealt with a number of areas in which the laws had changed since the county’s ordinance was last revised in 1994. Some of those were made to correspond with state laws and others gave his department more powers of discretion to act quickly in the interest of public safety.
“Some areas had gone from black and white (in the old ordinance) to gray,” Simpkins said Wednesday. “This puts in some stiffer guidance for public nuisance and helps us make determinations in the field.”