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November 02, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, November 02, 2005

New rules snap at heels of dangerous, vicious dogs New rules snap at heels of dangerous, vicious dogs (November 02, 2005)

** Local towns review, act on new county rules

Local towns are looking at changing the rules over how "dangerous" and "vicious" animals are defined and dealt with.

The towns are responding to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, which has revised its animal-control ordinance and is asking the towns to adopt the new rules in the wake of several attacks and killings by vicious dogs.

The changes would require that vicious dogs be banished from the county or euthanized. One of the proposed rules would prohibit any animal that has attacked a person from living in a household with children under 18.

The county's intent is to make animal-control laws more consistent from town to town, and to respond to public concerns about dangerous and vicious animals, said Sandy Sloan, the town attorney for Portola Valley.

Minor changes are allowed so as to reflect the needs of individual towns, but the Humane Society will withhold services from localities "not in substantial compliance" with the county's ordinance, said Ms. Sloan. Such services include animal rescue and handling of injured or dead deer.
Local action

Atherton's City Council on October 19 voted 5-0 in favor of the revisions, and plans to take final action November 16.

The Menlo Park City Council has reviewed the proposals and may take final action November 8.

In Woodside, the county's proposals are set to go before the Town Council in January, said Town Clerk Janet Koelsch.

The Portola Valley Town Council harshly criticized the proposals last week and has asked staff to have the local version reflect the rural nature of the town.

"An urban type of ruling is being applied to a very rural type of situation," said Mayor Ed Davis.

The Portola Valley council may take action November 9.
New rules

The amended 19-page county ordinance, approved September 14 by the county Board of Supervisors, is a result of negotiations between the county's Environmental Services Agency and the Peninsula Humane Society.

The revisions include a redefinition of a dangerous animal; a new category for vicious animals; changes to the fate of such animals (including neutering and euthanasia); changes to the permitting, hearing and appeal procedures; and inspections by animal-control officers, with all costs paid by the owners of the animals.

A dangerous animal, according to the ordinance, initiates an attack requiring defensive action by a person to prevent injury or property damage and includes "any aggressive attack" on a person or animal "conducting himself peaceably and lawfully."

The words "without provocation" have been stricken from the old ordinance, implying that even a provoked attack could result in the animal being designated as "dangerous."

The term "dangerous" applies to "any animal (other than a police dog) which because of it disposition, behavior, training or other characteristic constitutes a danger to persons or property."

The term "other characteristic" seems to open the door to a city categorizing an entire breed of dogs, such as pit bulls, said Portola Valley Councilman Richard Merk.

A dangerous animal that has been aggressive toward a person is not allowed to be kept on the property or in a home in which children live, the amended ordinance says.
Menlo Park

The Menlo Park City Council wants more time and more input before making any changes to the city's animal-control ordinance.

At its October 25 meeting, the council chose to delay a vote on the county's amendments, opting to direct the police department to work with local pet-owners to make the language of the amendments more specific.

The council's decision came after comments by two dog owners who claimed the county's language is vague and could break up families and their pets for unwarranted reasons.

"I appreciate the need to protect the public, but I'd rather the city ... not attempt to supersede my parental judgment," said Rick Saletta, a representative of the Dog Owners Group of Menlo Area (DOGMA), who noted he has a small child and a dog.

Mr. Saletta said an uncharacteristic act by his dog toward another dog could deem it "dangerous" under the amendments, and force him to get rid of his pet. "This is a one-strike rule for pets," he said.

Patrol commander Mark Boettger of the police department said the amendment language is broad so reports can be dealt with case by case. The city's ordinance has paralleled the county's for the last 50 years, he said.

The council asked Mr. Boettger to work with Mr. Saletta and other concerned pet owners to clarify portions of the new ordinance, and bring it back to the council for a second reading at its November 8 meeting.

 

Portola Valley

A dog considered dangerous in a suburban neighborhood could be a good watch dog in a semi-rural equestrian town like Portola Valley, where there are no street lights, many wealthy residents and many wild animals.

"I'm basically uncomfortable about this whole thing," said Councilman Richard Merk at the council's October 26 meeting.

Mayor Ed Davis repeatedly questioned the rationale for the inspections, the law's rigidity, and the fees levied against owners for inspections, tagging, microchip implantation and hearings.

Each town has the right to hold hearings, using either a local or county panel. Councilmen Steve Toben and Ted Driscoll said they were open to the idea of using county panels. "These are very, very ugly cases," said Mr. Toben.

But during public comments, resident and dog owner George Stern injected a sour note regarding county panels, saying that he'd been through their procedures and listened to recordings of about 20 hearings.

"I don't really think they know their ears from their elbows when it comes to handling animals," he said. "They think it's bad when something snarls at something else."

A hearing can degenerate into a he-said-she-said confrontation, he said. "When it comes to animals who are not inherently troublemakers, you get swept in."

Mr. Toben described the situation as take it or leave it and the Humane Society's message as: "If you want us to pick up your dead deer, you're going to have to by-God get with the program here." Almanac staff writers David Boyce, Rory Brown and Andrea Gemmet contributed to this story.
INFORMATION

For more information, including the definitions, go to www.co.sanmateo.ca.us; look on the links on the left and click on Board of Supervisors, then Board Agendas. Scroll down to the four-column grid, and on the September 13, 2005, line, click on the button under the Agenda column. Go to Item 7 on the agenda, which has links to the ordinance and other documents.


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