Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Georgia ranks 32nd in the nation for the breadth of its animal laws, according to the Humane Society. That standing was aided last year when the state Legislature passed a law that helped define vicious dogs and held owners responsible for them. But there’s a long way to go. Today, animal-law experts talk about a dog-related bill introduced in this year’s session, and we hear from a Dallas, Ga., reader who wonders why so many irresponsible people own pit bulls.
Commenting is open below.
By Tom Sabulis
In 2012, the Georgia General Assembly passed the Responsible Dog Owner Act, which revamped existing legislation pertaining to dangerous dogs. A few bills dealing with animals were discussed during this year’s legislative session but did not get far. I asked Claudine Wilkins, an animal law expert, and Cindy Wiemann, an animal control officer and secretary-treasurer of the Georgia Animal Control Association (GACA), about new developments in animal rights and the law.
Q: How is the Responsible Dog Owner Act (RDOA) working?
Wilkins: Now we have a great opportunity to utilize the state’s RDOA when dealing with reckless dog owners. It can be used in many dangerous-dog situations. With any new state law, it takes time to get every county to amend their local ordinance to reflect the minimum state law requirements set by the RDOA. Counties and cities should adopt the state law, but they have the opportunity to add more stringent requirements, too. Some counties have already made the changes, and some have not yet gotten around to it.
Q: Any idea why some counties have not made the change yet?
Wilkins: Amending ordinances takes time, and I think local animal control officers are so immersed in their ordinance enforcement that they’re not used to doing state law enforcement. Really, the police and animal control need more training on this particular law, and there is free training out there. Depending on each case, I see RDOA being used when we see reckless owners continually ignore warnings about their dogs, repeat offenders, or in more cases of severe maulings.
Q: You both opposed HB 409 this year, which would affect anti-tethering laws. Why?
Wiemann: One of GACA’s objections to this bill was it removed local authority, the local ability to enact ordinances to serve communities. What works in downtown Atlanta isn’t appropriate in rural farmland, and vice versa. Many animal control officers say it would be unenforceable, as anyone tethering their dog could claim it was engaged in the special activity proposed in the bill. The burden will be placed squarely on the shoulders of animal control and law enforcement to prove otherwise.
Wilkins: Tethering can produce a bad situation in some cases. For one, it’s an attractive nuisance for children. A 3-year-old sees a puppy at the end of a leash; they don’t know that dog can be dangerous. Even a very sweet dog can also wrap its chain around the 3-year-old’s neck. Hunters like to use tethering to hold their hunting dogs. In rural counties, some tether their dogs, but it’s a very different scene in Atlanta or in suburbs where you have neighborhoods abundant with children and people are tethering their dogs. In Georgia, 11 counties and 6 cities already prohibit tethering due to public safety issues. Some were created because of dog attacks and fatalities in their community.
Q: If a dog is prone to aggressive behavior, couldn’t tethering be seen as a good thing, a protective thing?
Wilkins: No. It typically makes a dog more aggressive, because it is stuck on one place and in some cases, for a very long time. A dog on a chain is not getting exercise or socialization, and it poses threats to children who wander into the dog’s reach. The RDOA was initiated as the result of a little girl, Cheyenne Peppers, in south Georgia who was mauled to death. Two dogs broke from their chain and mauled her, almost decapitated her.
Q: Where does Georgia stand nationally regarding animal law?
Wilkins: In general, we’re behind, very behind, in so many ways. Our animal cruelty statute really doesn’t account for long-term intentional torture. The way it’s written, you basically have to maim, dismember, disfigure or kill an animal (for the act) to be considered aggravated cruelty. It lacks consideration for the deprave-minded person committing the act and is only triggered based on the injury received by the animal. The law is flawed in that you can knowingly and maliciously torture an animal for a long time, but if you do not maim, disfigure or kill it, you can’t be charged with aggravated cruelty. There is a lot to be done in Georgia.
Claudine Wilkins, an attorney and former prosecutor, founded the animal law section at the State Bar of Georgia. Cindy Wiemann has been an animal control officer in Madison for 14 years. She is secretary-treasurer of the Georgia Animal Control Association.
By Steve Anderson
It seems like about every other month, we see a report of an attack on someone by a “pit bull.” I use the term “pit bull” with the understanding that it is a generic term under which several breeds, including Staffordshire Terrier and American Bulldog, are lumped. The owners of the pit bull usually have the same thing to say — basically, something along the lines of, “I don’t know how it happened. Until Sparky mauled the neighbor’s kid, he was such a sweet dog.”
My question to the owners of the dog — and to our lawmakers — is, “Where’s the mystery?”
The neighbor’s kid got mauled because the pit bull’s owners chose a dog for a pet that was originally bred for fighting — for strength, courage and, yes, aggression.
I empathize with people who are responsible, well-informed pet owners. I would like to think they are in the majority, but observation indicates that is not the case. The sad truth is that most people who adopt a dog of any kind have little or no idea how to properly train and care for it. And it’s sadder still because it’s always the animal that suffers.
It takes an intelligent, well-informed pet owner to recognize the types and early signs of aggression and take the necessary steps to counteract them. High energy and potentially aggressive dogs require early and ongoing training to become and remain well-socialized.
The truth is that the general populace can’t be counted on for responsible behavior. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need police departments and jails.
But when someone chooses a pit bull for a pet, there is an unspoken underlying motivation.
The actress Tippi Hedren maintains a wildlife sanctuary in California because people buy and attempt to keep lions, tigers and a host of other dangerous animals, only to find later that, mysteriously, they don’t make good pets. The state of Florida recently had a python roundup because people attempt to keep large constrictors for pets and later find that they’re difficult to handle and set them free.
As I write this, my neighborhood is blissfully quiet. Sadly, this is not always the case. Apparently, if you live out in the country, you must own the largest, loudest and most aggressive dog available. Most of my neighbors have more than one. I’m not sure why. As far as I know, there aren’t a lot of break-ins out here.
The conclusion I’ve come to is that some people want to own monsters. I’ll bet that if a dog breeder could offer a dog that featured the full-time lycanthrope transmutation feature, the line for getting one would be a long one. And my neighbors would be in front.
I don’t think outlawing pit bulls is the way to go. As an example, I drive a pickup truck. To properly use the truck, I know I have to keep tie straps and other devices to make sure my load is secure. If something I’m carrying falls out of the bed of my truck, I know I’m liable for it. There are fines and jail time if I don’t take responsibility for my actions.
There should be stronger laws on the books governing attacks by aggressive dogs, and stiff penalties to go with them for the owners of the dogs. And they should be strictly enforced. When people start seeing dog owners go to jail for irresponsible behavior, they’ll start thinking twice about keeping a potentially dangerous animal for a pet.
Steve Anderson, a carpenter, lives in Dallas, Ga.