By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Large-breed dogs with a dangerous reputation could come under stricter control if a proposed ordinance passes the City Council.
A group of municipal leaders and other stakeholders who have studied the issue will recommend the measure within the next few weeks. It aims to reduce hundreds of monthly calls about aggressive dogs – especially pit bulls – and prevent future attacks.
But some animal advocates blast the measure for unfairly targeting specific breeds, saying it punishes responsible pet owners whose dogs have done nothing wrong. They want an ordinance against aggressive animals without identifying pedigree.
“Unfortunately you need a first-bite incident to say that’s a dangerous dog,” said Tupelo veterinarian Stephen King, who opposes breed-specific legislation. “On the flip side, if you do a breed specific, you’ve penalized responsible dog owners of that type of breed who show no aggression or dangerous behavior.”
Dogs, from pit bulls to teacup poodles, are only as aggressive as their owners allow, he said.
Those in favor of the ordinance agree with King about owner-induced aggression but argue that Tupelo’s specific pit-bull problem can’t be ignored. The bloodline has a history of violent behavior perpetuated by some of the owners who typically choose this type of pet, said Tupelo-Lee Humane Society Debbie Hood.
“I blame the irresponsible owners of these pit bulls for the ordinances to come down on the other, responsible owners,” Hood said. “We agree it should be a dangerous dog ordinance, but the city doesn’t want to wait until a dog is deemed dangerous.”
Hood said the animal shelter fields about 200 calls monthly, and the vast majority involve errant and aggressive pit bulls.
In addition to pit bulls, other breeds also could be singled out in the proposal, said the subcommittee’s chairman and Ward 5 City Councilman Jonny Davis. He wants to recommend mandatory registration and annual permit fees for owners of Rottweilers, German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers, too.
Owners of these animals would face stricter requirements for confining their pets and higher fines for failure to comply than would owners of non-dangerous pets.
Other dogs would fall into the dangerous category only after having shown signs of aggression, like biting a person or another pet or acting in a threatening manner. Such incidents would be investigated by the city’s animal control officer before a dog could be deemed dangerous.
Tupelo’s current ordinance requires all dogs be kept on a leash or in a pen with a maximum $50 fine for violations. With only one full-time animal control officer, though, it’s hard to enforce.
“We’re trying to make the city a safer environment for other citizens and still respect dog owners,” Davis said. “We don’t want to wait until a citizen gets hurt or, God forbid, a child gets killed.”
In the past two years in Northeast Mississippi, pit bulls have attacked at least four children and four adults – two of them fatally. One of the incidents happened on Feemster Lake Road in Lee County, where a family pit bull ripped into the face of an 18-month-old girl. She survived.
Communities across the region have wrestled to deal with the situation. Many now are considering ordinances similar to the one floated in Tupelo. But it’s not an easy matter, as evidenced by Tupelo’s own struggle to adopt a solution.
The city had launched a task force about five years ago to recommend a vicious dog ordinance. It never gained enough steam to pass a council vote and eventually died.
Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell said he’d like to see it pass this time, as long as it doesn’t target specific pedigrees. He also wants to see a citywide pet registration requirement for all cat and dog owners. The permit fees would raise much-needed revenues for the Tupelo-Lee Humane Society, while the registration would help reunite lost pets with their owners.
“I would support a citywide pet registration, a dangerous dog act and a leash law with teeth in it,” Newell said. “But I’m opposed to breed specific.”