Update 5/13/16: On May 11, the Elizabeth City Council passed a repeal of the BSL ordinance and it will take effect 20 days later. I want to commend the City Council and the Health Officer for taking this action.
Update: 4/22/16: Elizabeth’s Health Officer states the city does not enforce Elizabeth’s Breed Specific Legislation due to state law overriding the municipal code. However, I believe Elizabeth must revoke the law due to citizens reading the law and believing that it applies in Elizabeth. Additionally, we have no guarantees the city will not enforce the law in the future. Furthermore, the law sends the wrong message about pit bulls to the public.
In my last blog, I criticized Elizabeth’s elected officials for running a regressive pound. However, the city’s laws also affect animals and their owners. Do these laws help the animal shelter save lives or make shelter killing more likely? Does the city’s animal statutes protect or break the human-animal bond in the city?
Breed Specific Legislation is Ineffective
Breed Specific Legislation (“BSL”) is designed to regulate pit bull like dogs and certain other breeds in order to protect the public from these animals. All the major national animal welfare groups except for PETA oppose BSL. The following groups publicly came out against BSL:
- American Bar Association
- American Kennel Club (“AKC”)
- American Veterinary Medical Association
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior
- Animal Farm Foundation
- Association of Pet Dog Trainers
- Best Friends Animal Society
- British Veterinary Association
- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (“CDC”)
- Humane Society of the United States (“HSUS”)
- National Animal Care and Control Association
- National Canine Research Council
- Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – Australia
- Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – United Kingdom
- United Kennel Club (“UKC”)
- United States Department of Justice
- President Obama’s Administation
BSL is ineffective and costly. Multiple case studies show serious dog bites do not decrease after BSL is enacted. Furthermore, funds used to enforce BSL are diverted from saving shelter animals and other productive uses. Additionally, cities could face significant litigation costs when enforcing these laws against owners of restricted breeds. Also, people may not license their dogs due to the fear of being targeted by authorities. Lower dog licensing rates lead to fewer owners reclaiming their animals from shelters and increased shelter killing as well as operating costs. Finally, these laws tarnish the reputation of communities that enact BSL.
Elizabeth’s BSL Makes Pit Bulls and Their Owners Seem Like Criminals
Elizabeth requires owners of pit bulls to obtain a special pit bull license in addition to a regular dog license. While this may not seem like a big deal, the law sends the message that pit bulls are different and more dangerous than other dogs. Requiring owners to obtain a special pit bull license stigmatizes owners and their dogs. After all, if the city believes pit bulls are dangerous, why shouldn’t landlords fear these animals? This government sponsored discrimination encourages rental polices preventing tenants from owning pit bull like dogs. Fewer housing options in turn results in more people surrendering their pit bulls to the shelter and increased killing. Given that around 1 of 3 unclaimed pit bulls lost their lives at the Elizabeth Animal Shelter in 2015, this is a very serious problem. Thus, the special license makes owners and their dogs feel like criminals and feeds the cycle of discrimination against people and their pit bull like dogs.
Elizabeth’s restrictions on walking pit bull like dogs are disgraceful. Elizabeth’s city code states “No person under the age of eighteen (18) years may own, control, attempt to control or walk a pit bull.” In other words, a family’s teenage son or daughter cannot walk their own pit bull like dog legally in the city. If a parent’s teenage son or daughter does walk the family’s pit bull, the parent or other adult owner of the dog could face a sentence of of up to 6 months in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine (applies to any violation of the city’s anti-pit bull law). To make matters worse, the city requires owners to muzzle their pit bulls, use a steel leash and collar, and carry a device that can pry open the dog’s jaws when walking their pit bull. Honestly, Elizabeth’s laws make it nearly impossible for any pit bull owner to legally walk their dog. Additionally, people can’t walk more than one pit bull at a time even if such dogs are fully under the person’s control. Furthermore, Elizabeth requires pit bull owners to put up visible signs at their homes “advising of the presence of a pit bull and its potential viciousness.” Finally, the city confiscates the owner’s pit bull (i.e. takes to the city’s kill shelter) if the owner violates the law on two occasions. Thus, Elizabeth’s laws treat all pit bulls and their owners as convicted criminals.
Dog Licensing and Animal Shelter Fees Go to Elizabeth and Not the Animal Shelter
Elizabeth requires all dog license and animal shelter fees paid by the public go to general government purposes rather than to the animal shelter. Assuming Elizabeth’s residents own a similar number of dogs as people in the United States as a whole and each resident paid $10 on average for their dog license (the fees are $12 and $8 for intact and altered dogs) and 25% of those dog owners licensed their animals, the city could have provided over $76,000 to its animal shelter. As a comparison, the Elizabeth Health Department’s 2015 budget only showed $167,722 specifically allocated to animal control and sheltering. If Elizabeth simply earmarked these estimated dog licensing fees to its shelter, the city would have $106 more to spend on each unclaimed dog and cat arriving at the shelter. The city could use these licensing fees to pay for spay/neuter and vaccinations for all animals the shelter adopts out and sends to rescues. Thus, Elizabeth should change its laws to ensure dog licensing fees go to funding the animal shelter and not the general operations of the city government.
Adopters Threatened with Massive Fines
Elizabeth’s city code threatens adopters with significant fines if the adopter does not spay/neuter and vaccinate their animals within 30 days. As I mentioned in my previous blog, the city has chutzpah to require adopters to spay/neuter their animals when the shelter itself refuses to do so. Upon reviewing the Elizabeth’s statutes, I found it is even worse. Specifically, adopters must alter their animal as well as get a rabies vaccine within 30 days or face a $250 fine for each offense (i.e. $500 if neither is done within 30 days). If the person commits the offense a second time, say they adopt two animals at different times, the fines double and could total up to $1,000. In a city like Elizabeth, where many residents face serious economic challenges, 30 days may not be enough time to find a vet to provide low-cost spay/neuter services and a city or privately run low-cost or free rabies clinic. Thus, a person seeking to do right by animals and adopt could face severe financial penalties for failing to do the very things the city of Elizabeth refused to do.
Pet Limit Law Leads to Increased Shelter Killing
Elizabeth’s pet limit law results in increased shelter intake and fewer available homes for animals at the shelter. The city restricts households from owning more than any combination of five dogs and cats (households owning more than 5 licensed animals before this ordinance was enacted are exempted). While the city allows people to petition the Director of the Health and Human Services to house more than five animals, I highly doubt many people would try. First and foremost, if the city denies the pet owner’s petition, the person will have to get rid of a family member. Most people would simply take their chances with the authorities not finding out. Second, the Director of Health and Human Services can deny the petition if he or she views the animals as a “nuisance”, which has nothing to do with animal welfare. The ASPCA, HSUS, Best Friends and the No Kill Advocacy Center all oppose these laws as these statutes waste scarce resources that cities can use to save animals and lead to increased shelter killing. Cities should pursue policies that keep animals with their loving families and increase the number of good homes for animals in shelters. Thus, Elizabeth’s pet limit law hurts Elizabeth’s dogs and cats and pet owning residents.
Secretive Dog Control Committee Not Conducive to Running a Successful Shelter
The city’s animal laws delegate the design of Elizabeth Animal Shelter’s policies to three council members serving on the Dog Control Committee. First and foremost, politicians should not design detailed animal shelter policies. Certainly, the Dog Control Committee can set overall goals and the general types of programs the shelter should have, but it should not dictate how the shelter is run on a day to day basis unless the shelter’s leader is incompetent. In that type of environment, you will have great difficult attracting and retaining a dynamic and compassionate leader to to run the shelter. Second, the city must disclose the members of the Dog Control Committee and the shelter’s policies to provide transparency as to what exactly happens at this facility as the ASPCA recommends.
Elizabeth’s Police Department and Animal Control Department Can Kill Animals for Dubious Reasons
Elizabeth’s city code allows police officers and ACOs to “kill any dangerous animals of any kind when it is necessary for the protection of any person or property.” While killing an animal that poses a serious danger to a person may be a necessary evil that occurs rarely, killing any animal “for the protection of property” is unacceptable. Under that standard, the city’s police or animal control personnel can kill a scared, abused dog abandoned in an apartment that was biting the door to get out.
Elizabeth Must Change its Animal Laws to Become a Humane Community
Elizabeth’s elected officials clearly need to overhaul their animal laws. The city treats pit bull owners like common criminals and perpetuates discrimination against these people and their dogs. Elizabeth must change laws leading to increased killing at its shelter. Furthermore, the city must remove the curtain hiding the secretive Dog Control Committee and its policies. While the city’s animal control employees may not enthusiastically enforce these laws, Elizabeth residents are always at risk of that changing. In addition, the presence of these laws sends the wrong message and communicates either the city cares little about animals and/or is not serious about enforcing its own laws. Most Elizabeth residents would be appalled if they knew these laws existed in their city. The time has come for Elizabeth’s elected officials to act. The sooner these laws become past history the better.