City Councilor Sally Mayer is about to get tough on Albuquerque pet owners. She is drawing up a complete overhaul of the current animal ordinance that will make it illegal to keep a dog chained to anything, anywhere, for any length of time. It will also force dog owners whose dogs are not spayed or neutered to pay the city a $150 registration fee, and will require that microchips, that can be scanned by the city, be implanted in all pets.
The 60-plus page ordinance is still in its first draft, and when it is finished it will be the toughest animal code in the country, according to Vicky Elkey, campaign manager for Animal Protection Voters.
Elkey has been working with Mayer to shape the legislation, and so far says she is very excited about it.
"The whole reason Councilor Mayer wanted to do this was because of the flood of animals coming into our shelters," she says. Albuquerque takes in between 400 and 600 animals a week, according to Elkey, or about half of what they take in in Los Angeles.
Or to be more succinct, Mayer says, "Our animal overpopulation problem is huge."
The legislation has borrowed from other ordinances around the country, taking what Elkey calls "the best of the best." It allocates more funds for spay and neuter programs, delineates new guidelines for caring for pets in city shelters and has a provision for the city to take care of animals belonging to domestic violence victims while the victims are leaving their abusive household. It also suggests a maximum punishment to anyone who breaks the law with a petty misdemeanor charge and a $500 fine and/or 90 days in jail.
"In a nutshell, it's an extremely punitive bill," says City Councilor Eric Griego. "I believe the intent is good... [but] this bill is far reaching, and it will be difficult for many members of the community to comply."
Councilor Griego, a self-proclaimed dog lover who has pushed for more public dog parks in the city, is concerned the new fee structure is prohibitively expensive for many Albuquerqueans, and will result in fewer people legally registering their pets, which means even less oversight by the city.
The current draft of the legislation includes expanded police powers to allow officers to enter private property and seize animals or inspect properties applying for animal permits, after which the city may charge a "reasonable inspection fee." Dogs with a barking problem will be considered abused and may be seized.
Companion animal permits will expire after one year, and if not renewed immediately a late fee will be assessed in addition to the cost of renewing the permit. The owner of a pregnant female animal must apply for a $150 litter permit before the litter is born, even if the pregnancy is accidental.
According to Elkey, anyone who wants to have a pet spayed or neutered can already do so, no matter their income bracket. The city has already begun a program of free and low-cost spaying and neutering through an organization called No More Homeless Pets.
Under the new ordinance, registering a spayed or neutered animal will be completely free for those who qualify as low income. However, the cost of registering an "intact" animal would increase from its current $20 fee to $150, with no exceptions for low-income residents.
Under current law, no dog may be chained outside for more than eight hours a day. Under the new law, it would be illegal to chain dogs for longer than 10 minutes.
According to Elkey, the city is going to work with volunteers from animal rights groups to help people get their dogs off chains. But the current draft of the ordinance stipulates that if pet owners continue to chain their dogs, a $500 fine will be levied.
"A lot of people have their dogs chained up because they don't know any better" says Elkey. "They say, ’I have to chain my dog because he jumps up at me when I go outside,' but they don't realize the dog jumps because it is so bored all day long. Dogs are social animals." Furthermore, she says, there will be provisions to let some pet owners install trolley tethers, but only after proving they have done everything else to try to get the dog off a chain. Then, if the ordinance gains approval, the city can grant a permit.
Ann Beyke, community relations director for the Animal Humane Association of New Mexico, does not believe the legislation punishes pet owners. She wants the bill to eliminate backyard breeding and animal cruelty and says it will help curb Albuquerque's animal overpopulation problem.
The public pays for the problem of pet overpopulation via their taxes and the associated costs to run city animal services, says Beyke, adding that in many cases, the most aggressive dogs are unsterilized strays and dog bites treated in the emergency room place more strain on our health care system. "This," Beyke stresses, "is definitely a social issue."
One of the bill's "draconian" aspects, according to Griego, is the burden of enforcement. Animal services will be allowed to enter a home without a warrant to seize an animal based solely on neighbor complaints.
"Under emergency circumstances, if this animal is in imminent threat or severely suffering, we can already do that," says Mayer. "If you see a dog suffering in a hot car, you can break the window to get them out. That's not new. That's an existing law."
What about the concern that the new ordinance enables government intrusion into folks private lives and private property?
"You always have to weigh the community caretaking responsibility that we are given as city officials, with someone's personal rights," says Mayer. "Animals need to be treated as something other than just property. There's a difference between a dog and a chair."
Under the new law, excessive barking is considered a sign of animal neglect and is grounds for seizing the animal.
It is easy to imagine cases where neighbors have different definitions of "excessive," or use this power in a malicious or vindictive way. The legislation also suggests that pet owners use shock treatments or other means to prevent their dogs from barking. Because of the new risks and penalties for excessive barking, more pet owners may start using these methods more frequently. Arguably, shock treatments might be another form of cruelty.
Also, because of the many permits and fees required to own a companion animal and increased penalties, people may see owning an animal as too much of a bureaucratic and financial hassle to take on.
These are concerns expressed by Councilor Griego, while he agrees that the city needs to address the problem of animal overpopulation and encourage responsible pet ownership.
Also, resources at Animal Services are already slim, and Griego points out that "right outside our city limits we have no control. And where do those puppies go? The city." And where is the money for enforcement coming from?
"It's a tax increase on everybody," says Councilor Griego.
Elkey feels enforcement is only going to be as thorough as the people of Albuquerque make it. "If the mayor and the Council heard people saying it's important for us to have these cruelty laws enforced, it will be enforced. It's up to us as a community to see that our elected officials enforce our laws."
Albuquerque's new animal ordinance has not yet been formalized. Most of the people working on it truly have the best interests of animals at heart, and have taken a broad view of how to protect them.
City Councilor Sally Mayer says she wants public feedback. She can be reached at 768-3100. A draft of the entire bill is also available at www.cabq.gov/council/animal.html.
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