The removal of nine abused dogs from a Southwest Decatur home spurred a renewed response Monday from the City Council, which approved an anti-tethering ordinance 18 months after its initial introduction.
After getting unanimous consent for immediate consideration, the council voted 4-0 to approve a rewrite of the city’s dog leash ordinance that generally bans tethering, which means securing a dog to a fixed point. The new law goes into effect June 1.
Early last week, city Animal Control officers began communicating with the owner over the alleged mistreatment of his nine dogs at an Austin Street Southwest home. Two dogs were treated for injuries and released back to their caregiver. But the owner eventually surrendered the dogs Friday to Animal Control after discussions with the department. Several dogs were removed from the property while a protest organized by Councilman Hunter Pepper was underway.
The pets’ former owner has not been charged with a crime, Police Department spokeswoman Irene Cardenas-Martinez said.
Victoria Matthews, of Eagle Wing Drive Southeast, said she’s glad to see Decatur finally pass an ordinance that helps dogs.
“It doesn’t go far enough, but it’s a start and we’re going in the right direction,” Matthews said. “They shouldn’t have let the owner get the dogs back, especially when you’ve got one decaying out in the open near the other dogs. We don’t need to wait while it’s ‘under investigation.’ Enforcement needs to be done promptly, and the animals need to be removed immediately from that situation.”
Matthews said she volunteered for Decatur Animal Services when a large number of animals were euthanized in 2013 by the shelter on Central Parkway Southwest.
The fine under the newly approved ordinance is a minimum of $100 plus court costs, which City Attorney Herman Marks said would add up to about $700 for an offense.
“That’s a start and we have to keep working to get it increased,” Matthews said.
Melissa Lance, of 15th Avenue Southeast, said a lot of people had input into the new ordinance and she’s glad it finally got approved. She said more needs to be done at the state and federal levels.
“It’s a poor excuse to let a dog die in a mud hole,” Lance said.
Councilman Billy Jackson was absent at the called meeting, but he said by phone Monday morning he opposes the new ordinance.
“I love animals and my dogs have never been on a chain,” Jackson said. “This hurts elderly people who can’t afford a fence and need to put their dog outside."
Cardenas-Martinez said last week that several dogs on the Austin Street property were found muddy and tethered outside, unable to reach shelter from the rain. One dead dog was found on the property.
Jackson said moving so quickly on this tethering ordinance is a knee-jerk reaction to last week’s incident.
“What this guy did to those dogs was horrible,” Jackson said. “But this is really just a symptom of the bad policing of our ordinance. I’m not referring to the police. I’m talking about the enforcement of all of our ordinances.”
Pepper responded that Jackson should listen to his constituents.
“Billy is wrong,” Pepper said. “Billy thinks he knows everything and his opinion is the only one that matters. There were people who live in his District 1 here today that are for this ordinance.”
Pepper said the new ordinance is “the best we can do right now” under current state law.
The initial tethering ordinance proposal was introduced in fall 2019, but it was pulled for major changes after questions from animal advocates and the American Kennel Club.
A second version was introduced early last year but tabled again last March after more questions from the public and Police Chief Nate Allen.
Paige Bibbee, who was council president last year, said she and then-Councilwoman Kristi Hill asked a number of times when the proposed ordinance would be presented again and they got no response from the Legal Department.
The third version of the tethering ordinance never made it back in front of the previous council because of the coronavirus pandemic, City Attorney Herman Marks said.
“We wanted public input but we could never find a time in which we could bring the ordinance back up because of limited seating,” Marks said.
Marks said he had planned to finally introduce the ordinance changes at the council’s planned April 5 meeting, but last week’s Austin Street incident prompted the council to move more quickly on the ordinance.
Council President Jacob Ladner said he felt it had been studied enough even though Monday was the first review by this council that took office in November.
“I don’t know why it wasn’t passed before,” Ladner said. “But I appreciate this council’s willingness to move quickly on the important issues.”
Ladner said he’s not concerned about the cost of complying with the ordinance “because dogs shouldn’t be tethered, I don’t care what a person’s income is. This has nothing to do with someone’s income. This is about treating a dog humanely.”
Marks said the intent of the new ordinance is to ensure a dog “has access to water, food and shelter and has adequate room to move.” He added that this is all about enforcing responsible care of animals.
The new ordinance provides that, “No person owning or keeping a dog may subject the dog to cruel conditions or inhumane tethering at any time.
“Cruel conditions and inhumane tethering are defined as dirty confinement conditions, including but not limited to, exposure to excessive animal waste, garbage, dirty water, noxious odors, dangerous objects that could injure or kill the dog upon contact, or other circumstances that could cause harm to the dog's physical health.”
The ordinance allows the dog to be secured in a residential structure, in a fence or pen, or to an aerial cable line system. The ordinance doesn’t specify how long an aerial cable must be, and it allows alternative restraint “using an underground fence or trained behavior.”
One change from a previous version is the new ordinance places no restrictions on the size of the fenced enclosure or pen that holds a dog. The method of restraint while on an owner’s premises is generally “within the discretion of the owner provided the conditions are humane and do not present a hazard to the animal or the public.”
The ordinance requires that any dog that’s kept outside or repeatedly left outside unattended has to be “provided with a structurally sound, moisture-proof and wind-proof shelter large enough to keep the dog reasonably clean and dry."
“A shelter which does not protect the dog from temperature extremes or precipitation, or which does not provide adequate ventilation or drainage,” doesn’t comply with the requirement, according to the ordinance.
Marks said the Police Department eliminated wording in the previous versions that prevented placing a dog in a “dangerous situation” because “law enforcement often has to put their police dogs in dangerous situations as part of their job.”