Friday, November 5, 2010

What Should Be Done?

It's hard to imagine a more stressful job for an animal lover than being an employee of a county animal control or a humane society charged with enforcement of human-animal laws. The heartbreak of receiving mistreated and discarded pets and witnessing the euthanizing of perfectly healthy animals must extract a heavy emotional toll.

Difficult financial times as we are now experiencing add to the stresses. Pets are given up because people lose homes and cannot find a rental that will accept pets. Budget cuts can mean a reduction in employees, adding to the overload for staff. Donations to non-profits suffer as peoples' disposable income is reduced.

Is it possible to make humane laws and their enforcement more effective under current conditions? I believe it is possible, but not without a complete re-thinking of the laws and a fresh approach to enforcement.

The basic structure of "animal control" has not changed much since I Love Lucy was the top show on black and white television.

However. Just about all the relevant variables have changed. For example, my county, San Diego County, California, has tripled in population. Breeds that no one outside the dog world had ever heard of have become popular. Two income families--both spouses working outside the home--have become the norm. Puppy mills continue to churn out poor, sickly dogs for profit and all sorts of mixed breeds are produced and sold to the naive as "designer breeds."

Like many other counties, San Diego is large both in terms of population and square miles. It includes cities, towns, suburbs, exurbs, ranch land, deserts, mountains, beaches, rich, middle class, poor, and a mind-boggling number of nationalities and languages which represent widely differing cultures and customs.

Even if public funds were available, and they certainly are not, throwing money at our sclerotic system of animal control would not significantly ameliorate the lives of homeless pets and improve the safety of dogs being walked on leash on the county's streets in the county's parks.

What should be done?

1. Jurisdiction for animal control needs to be closer to home than the county. Approaches that work for semi-rural communities cannot be expected to work for high density neighborhoods or suburbs. This means that cities and towns need to start taking responsibility for the welfare and safety of animals and humans within their jurisdiction. One spark of hope for this approach is in the talking stage with the cities of Oceanside, Vista and San Marcos considering the creation of a more localized jurisdiction for animal control. I am tentatively hopeful. But if these cities just replicate the old system, they will miss an important opportunity to really improve the lives of domestic pets in North County.

2. Criminal charges for violations of leash laws need to be eliminated. A law enforcement officer whose main concerns are robbery, theft or assault with a deadly weapon can be understandably reluctant to charge a person violating a leash law with a misdemeanor. Unless animals--usually dogs--are clearly being used in a threatening manner, leash law violations should be infractions.

3. Leash law violations should be treated similarly to traffic violations. While charges should be lowered, fines should be raised and graduated for each offense. In this way, dog on dog attacks can be addressed. Under the current system, the only consequence for a dog on dog attack is what the victim's human is able to extract from the perpetrator's human. Usually this goes through Small Claims Court and rarely results in full restitution of veterinary fees, much less sufficient cost to act as deterrent for future violations. I have no doubt that if the owners of the dog who savaged Zephyr had felt sufficiently punished financially for that attack, Portia, Bingley and John would not have been attacked less than three years later by the same dog and Portia would be alive today.

4. Leash law violators should be required to attend--and pay for--classes in responsible dog care. San Diego County Animal Control has a small pilot program with this approach which is showing encouraging results. Repeat violators should be assigned community service hours in shelters.

5. Just as some people eventually lose the right to drive a car, some people should not be permitted to have the responsibility of caring for a domestic pet.

It is pretty well established that the presence of a domestic pet in a human's life brings physical, emotional and social benefits. We owe these fellow creatures who bring so many graces into our lives more responsible care. A fresh approach to the laws and enforcement of the laws that affect our canine and feline companions is necessary if we are to discharge our responsibilities toward them

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