June 2009

The threat of loose dogs

By David Grant Long

Following an attack by two pit bulls on a Montezuma County woman in May, the county commissioners are planning to consider adopting some type of dog-control ordinance later this summer. What form the ordinance might take has yet to be decided.

Currently, the county has no specific dog-control ordinance but operates under state laws.

Nancy Thomas, a well-known county resident who has a wildlife preserve near Totten Lake, was attacked by two pit bulls on May 13 when she knocked on a neighbor’s door. She was hospitalized for treatment of a fractured wrist and severe lacerations.

The neighbor was reportedly horrified by the attack and the dogs have since been euthanized. It is not big news when dog bites man, the old journalistic saw goes, because it's such an ordinary happenstance. (Now if man bites dog, that is news!)

Certainly, dog bites rarely make the news in Montezuma County because they are an all-too common occurrence, sometimes with painful and permanent results.

Not a month goes by without two or three dogbite incidents being investigated by local law enforcement, and those are only the ones that are reported — usually if the victim ends up getting medical treatment.

More than 30 dog bites were reported in the county during 2007 and 2008, according to Melissa Mathews of the county health department, and this year is right on schedule for a similar number. In fact, the county ranks among the top counties in the state in the number of dog bites reported. (In 2004, a third of Colorado’s reported bites were in Montezuma County.)

Last month a Dolores woman was also charged and attacked by two dogs while biking along the West Fork Road north of town. One dog latched onto her leg as she tried to outrun them, causing her to crash and sustain injuries that required medical attention.

That victim, who declined to be interviewed because of a pending court case, did say that she was not the only one to have been attacked by those dogs, whose owner was charged with unlawful ownership of a dangerous dog (second offense).

But because of a state statute known as the “first-bite-free law,” holding owners responsible for their canines' behavior can be difficult. Under that law, a prosecutor must prove the owner knew the dog was dangerous before it bit someone.

Sheriff Gerald Wallace says the problem is ongoing.

“It's a regular occurrence — just not to the severity that Nancy got attacked,” Wallace said. “Over the past couple months I've been working with the [county] commissioners and I've given them copies of what other counties have for animal-control ordinances.

“They're discussing it and I think we're going to set up a public meeting in the near future to gather some input and see what they want to do,” he said, “but I believe there's definitely some action that need to be taken.”

Wallace said presently under both state and local law, owners of known vicious dogs can be prosecuted.

“But it would be nice to be able to deal with it before it becomes a vicious attack,” he said.

One sticking point is that state law requires that additional local ordinances may be passed only in conjunction with licensing dogs, and that may not be acceptable in this area.

“I know that licensing isn't a very popular thing,” Wallace said, but there may be a way to skirt that condition. “The county attorney is looking at that.”

Other counties have what's known as “care and control” ordinances, he explained, which protect dogs by penalizing neglect and requiring the animals be under control of their owner, meaning the dogs must stay on the owner's property.

“We get a lot of calls where people are running down the road getting fit or whatever, and a dog will run out and bite them,” he said. Another problem is dogs rushing out to attack other dogs that are being walked on leashes.

“I know there is definitely some concern over the fact that there are dogs out there that are not being kept under control.”

Dogs that chase livestock, also a commom problem, may be shot and sometimes are, but ranchers sometimes learn this has happened only after a cow or calf has been killed or injured.

Wallace has proposed designating one deputy to deal with animal-control problems as well as agricultural issues such as water disputes, and said an officer is probaby going to assume those duties later this summer.

“I really wanted to find the right person and it's taken me longer than I would have liked,” he said. “[Concerning] the animal-control portion of it, until we get an ordinance in place, there's really not much that can be done.” As former sheriff Joey Chavez told the Free Press (April 2004), deputies currently have no authority to round up strays or other out-of-control dogs and even if they do the department becomes responsible for any kennel fees or other costs associated with impounding them.

Wallace said if the county commission does decide to adopt an animal- control ordinance, it would be complaint-driven and not proactively enforced. But if someone were menaced by a dog in the county, it would be one more tool for dealing with such situations.

“If [the owners] did abide by it, then great, but if they didn't, then the next step after the verbal warning would be to give them a citation.

“I think it would help by educating people that there is an ordinance and helping prevent something like what happened to Nancy.”

Wallace said Thomas was “healing very well” from her injuries.