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Changes proposed for dealing with dogs

Animal Services officers' recommendations for handling problem dogs receives a warm response from officials and residents.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- Hernando County Animal Services officers want county commissioners to make it easier for them to deal with a growing number of complaints about barking, roaming and dangerous dogs.

Their recommendations, which would stiffen penalties and loosen complaint requirements, won broad acceptance Tuesday from commissioners and residents, some of whom applauded when they heard the commission give its consensus to move forward with the reforms.

The point is to make pet owners more responsible for their pets and to remove the burdens from others in the county, Code Enforcement Director Frank McDowell III said.

The workshop came a day after a group of strays wandered into a Spring Hill woman's yard and attacked her dachshund. The dog's injuries were so severe that dog had to be euthanized.

On Tuesday, Terry Rainier of Ridge Manor sought relief from the county's rules regarding barking dog complaints. He said he works 24-hour shifts and needs a good night's sleep, yet his neighbor's dog barks incessantly.

He frequently calls Animal Services or the Sheriff's Office to report the nuisance, but the dog owner simply has paid the fines and ignored the problem, Rainier said. And because the county requires three people within 500 feet of the dog to file affidavits before it will act, Rainier cannot get much action because other neighbors will not get involved.

Animal Services Officer Liana Teague suggested the ordinance be changed to reduce the number of complainants to two and to allow them to be within "reasonable distance" from the disturbance.

After confirming that the "reasonable distance" criteria would be legally defensible, commissioners told Teague and McDowell to move ahead with the proposed changes.

Commissioners also agreed to expand the use of warnings that turn into fines if not corrected within 15 days. Such a program, already used to enforce license and vaccine rules, places the burden of proof upon the animal owner, Teague said.

It does not require much extra work for the officers, she said.

If expanded in scope, she said, the warnings would cover such matters as animals without shelter and unrestrained, unneutered or unspayed animals. In a related decision, the board said it wanted to pursue allowing pet owners to spay or neuter any unfixed animals in lieu of paying the fines.

The board also approved increasing fines for repeat offenses, adding a mandatory court appearance with a maximum $500 fine for a fourth offense.

To deal with the increasing work load, Teague told commissioners that Animal Services needs a bigger staff. Many people turn their dogs loose on the weekends, and most of the barking disturbances take place at night, she said, yet the department has only an on-call officer during that time.

In fact, Teague said, the department has not added an officer in eight years or a kennel worker in 12 years. Animal Services has four officers and two kennel workers; standards set by a national association for animal control recommend seven to nine officers and five kennel workers for a department of its size.

"We feel like we're performing at a minimum service level because of this," Teague said.

What's more, she continued, the time it takes to handle a dangerous animal case removes officers from their regular work.

"We're finding ourselves shorthanded more and more often because of these types of cases," she said. "We don't necessarily have any immediate solutions for this, but we do have an idea for a second shift."

McDowell said the added employees could come in waves over time, but he planned to recommend some additions during the fiscal 2002 budget planning season.

During their conversation about Animal Services, commissioners also agreed to change animal adoption procedures so no animal leaves the county shelter without being properly vaccinated and neutered or spayed. They also made plans to allow residents to place refundable deposits for animal traps.

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