Major overhaul eyed in Tupelo pet policy

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The city’s failure to pass a tougher dog ordinance last week spotlights what some animal advocates consider the bigger problem: Tupelo’s outdated and ineffective pet policies.
For the past quarter century, the city has employed the same animal control tactics, despite its growing population and despite a slew of research recommending better methods.
It’s time to examine the entire issue, from top to bottom, some say.
“If there is any one good thing to come of all this, it’s that maybe it’s going to help us sit back and revisit the whole structure of animal control in Tupelo,” said veterinarian
Stephen King, who in the past has advised the city on animal issues and was opposed to the most recent proposal.
That proposal beefed up Tupelo’s existing dangerous dog ordinance, which automatically classifies pit bulls as dangerous, by adding new rules for owners. It also increased fees and fines associated with ownership of dangerous pets.
The ordinance has been in place since 1988 – at least as long as the city has outsourced its animal control enforcement to the nonprofit Tupelo-Lee Humane Society. But with limited resources and a small staff, the agency has struggled to meet Tupelo’s growing demand for services.
Currently, just one full-time ACO patrols the city’s 51 square miles and responds to an average of 200 calls per month.
It’s not clear, either, whether TLHS legally can do much beyond the basic rounding up and housing of errant or unwanted pets. The state Attorney General, in opinions to the city of Oxford in 2000, said nonprofits like humane societies can’t enforce municipal laws – only the police department can – but they can pick up strays.
Tupelo Police Chief Tony Carleton hopes this month to hire the department’s first full-time animal control officer in at least two decades. That will bring the number of ACOs patrolling the city to two. That’s two people in a city of roughly 19,000 pet dogs and cats, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association pet ownership calculator.
The figure doesn’t include stray animals roaming the streets, yards and wooded areas. A rough guess of strays comes from TLHS, which has taken in an average of nearly 8,000 cats and dogs each year for the past five years.
That’s nearly eight cats and dogs for every 10 Tupelo residents.
But while the TPD employs one officer for every 340 residents, it currently has zero dedicated to the roughly 27,000 cats and dogs.
While there is no ideal number of ACOs for any given pet population, according to the
National Animal Control Association, it’s clear Tupelo needs more than one as evidenced by the complaints racked up at City Hall.
Tupelo Chief Operations Officer Darrell Smith said he fields dozens of calls weekly about loose dogs – mostly pit bulls.
And residents frequently have contacted the Daily Journal about what they deem weak enforcement.
The American Veterinary Medical Association in 2001 released a series of recommendations for communities struggling to control their pets and reduce dog bite incidents.
It warns against ordinance that single out specific breeds and instead suggests a comprehensive approach involving numerous city stakeholders.
Among its recommendations: the creation of a permanent task force to oversee the system; the establishment of a mandatory citywide pet registration program; a systematic approach to identify, track and contain dangerous pets; as well as the strict enforcement of leash laws.
This was the comprehensive strategy pitched by King during a series of City Council work sessions spanning the course of about one year. But the strategy was rejected in favor of strengthening the ordinance already on the books. Now that the stronger ordinance proposal has died, some city and animal officials say they want to explore the AVMA’s recommendations.
Among them are Tupelo COO Smith, Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington, Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell, TLHS Executive Director Debbie Hood and King.
All of them agreed Tupelo could benefit from, if nothing else, mandatory registration of every cat and dog in the city.
Owners of sterilized pets would pay a nominal fee each year upon proof the pet was current on vaccinations and rabies shots. Owners of unsterilized pets would pay a higher fee.
Fees would provide muchneeded revenue for TLHS, encourage sterilization, reduce unwanted pets and reunite lost pets with owners. It also would enable the city to more effectively track pet complaints.
Currently, TLHS struggles to stay financially afloat and must euthanize some 5,000 pets annually due to its high drop-off rate. Some of those killed are beloved family pets who, due to a nonexistent registry, aren’t reunited in time to avoid death.
But Newell said the exploratory effort will go nowhere without the support of the administration and council President
Fred Pitts, who amid frustration with last week’s proposal told the Daily Journal he wants no part of continued talks.
“I can’t do it myself,” Newell said. “It’ll never get any support.”
In the meantime, officials have high hopes for the Police Department’s anticipated ACO.
It’s the right first step, King said, toward a more comprehensive and realistic approach to animal control.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com