Tethered dogs take center-stage in debate of local animal laws
Published 9:00 am Saturday, August 26, 2017
Clark County has a problem. At least according to Tracy Miller, founder and president of Seek Out And Rescue, an animal rescue group that serves several central Kentucky counties.
Miller said of the counties her agency serves — Scott, Fayette, Clark, Bourbon, Jessamine, Franklin, Anderson and Harrison — she and volunteers respond to calls in Clark County most often.
“Clark County is the county we serve the most,” she said. “We are here more often than any other county we serve, and that is because there are a lot of chained dogs here.”
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Addressing the issue of chained or pinned dogs is SOAR’s mission and one that has always been close to Miller’s heart.
“I’ve been doing rescue for 20 years,” she said. “I volunteered at the shelter in Scott County and served on the Humane Society board there, but my heart has always been for dogs on chains. I think they’re forgotten.”
She started SOAR nine years ago to address the issue and has since helped at least 25 dogs in Clark County by either rescuing or offering services for families to improve conditions for pets.
Recently, Miller encountered the worst animal cruelty case of her 20 years of rescue — right here in Clark County.
Miller was just leaving church the afternoon of May 21 when she received a message about a dog in Clark County that had a severely swollen face from an alleged snake bite. Unable to respond herself, Miller encouraged the person reporting the case to contact police.
“Deputies or police are supposed to respond to these reports when animal control is not open,” she said. “Deputies said they wouldn’t go because they don’t respond to snake bites.”
The person reporting was persistent, though, and continued contacting Miller.
“Finally, hours later, I rounded up a volunteer and drove out to the location,” Miller said. “When I walked up to the shelter on the property, I was so taken back and sickened by what I saw.”
Inside a make-shift shed on the property was an elderly dog in deplorable condition.
The dog, named Spanky, was living in the shed on a chain. He was thin and obviously neglected, but most notably, his entire head was swollen and deformed, Miller said.
“I gasped for air when I saw him,” Miller said. “We immediately asked the owner to sign him over, and she did but was mostly concerned about what it would cost her. We took him to a veterinarian who confirmed it wasn’t a snake bite.”
Miller said she knew immediately the dog had not been bitten by snake.
“If it was a snake bite from two weeks prior, like they said, that dog would have been dead,” she said.
Vets confirmed Spanky suffered from a severe cancerous brain tumor that had fully-engulfed his skull. Maggots had eaten out his eyes, leaving him blind. He was infested with fleas, depressed, dehydrated and lethargic.
He needed to be humanely euthanized.
“At least for the couple hours he was with us, someone cared about him,” Miller said.
The following day, Miller took the case to Clark County Attorney Brian Thomas.
Spanky’s owner was charged with second-degree cruelty to animals.
In July she was sentenced to 90 days and ordered not to have any pets after she pleaded guilty to the charges.
Her sentence, however, was conditionally discharged for two years by Judge Brandy Brown. Instead, she was ordered to pay restitution to SOAR for the nearly $400 veterinary bills. The no pets clause was maintained.
Miller said she doesn’t believe justice was served for Spanky, and that is not uncommon.
The forgotten outdoor dog
Clark County Animal Shelter Director Adreanna Wills said, much like Miller, she sees a correlation between pets that live outside and mistreatment.
“There is a link between animals that are kept outside, those that are not considered in-home pets, and neglect,” she said. “They live in the back yard on a chain, in a kennel, fenced in. It is easy for people to forget about them. Most have not been to the vet, they are not up-to-date on their vaccinations, they aren’t receiving the proper care, diet, water or medications.”
Her agency receives calls daily about dogs who are tethered.
“It might be because they are chained up and it’s really hot or cold out,” she said. “Sometimes it could just be a dispute between neighbors. We respond to everything, though. We investigate and determine if there is cause for concern or even removal.”
Tethered dogs that are taken into the shelter are often more difficult to place, she said.
“These are dogs that were gotten as cute, fun puppies,” she said. “They then start to grow into bigger destructive dogs. Around that time, they’re put in the backyard. The issues are never addressed or corrected. They manifest into bad behaviors. When they are rescued, they end up needing special placement because they might be aggressive to other animals. They become territorial when they are confined to a backyard most of their life.”
Sometimes that bad behavior turns into aggression towards other dogs, sometimes towards humans. A 1994 study partly authored by two Centers for Disease Control and Preventions physicians found that biting dogs were nearly 3 percent more likely to be chained.
Generally, Wills said her agency focuses on educating owners about how to best care for their pets.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of us going in and teaching them about the standards of care, asking them to improve the care and then rechecking,” she said. “If an animal is in distress or in danger, we remove them, sometimes immediately, sometimes within a couple days after it’s taken to the county attorney.”
Other times, owners would rather surrender the pet than make changes.
“And that is OK with us,” Wills said.
As director, Wills oversees the day-to-day operations of the shelter, including animal control and investigating animal cruelty.
Last year, the shelter housed 878 cats and 894 dogs, with 80 to 100 total at the shelter at any given time.
Some animals are surrendered by owners who no longer can or want to care for the pet. Others are picked up as strays or removed from neglectful or abusive homes.
Wills said many people have misconceptions what the shelter or animal control can do.
“People see these animal rescue shows on TV and they form this idea that we can go around kicking in back doors and removing animals. There’s much more to it,” she said. “It’s pretty rare that we actually remove animals. There are many times we wish there was more we could do. But, we can only do what the law allows.”
Lack of legislation
Miller also attributes the problem to lack of legislation about the proper and humane care of animals in Kentucky.
In January, the Animal Legal Defense Fund released an annual report ranking Kentucky last in the nation for animal protection laws. The ALDF annual report has been released each year for 11 years, and Kentucky has ranked worst in the nation for the last 10.
According to the report, Kentucky law is lacking adequate definitions and standards of basic care, mental health evaluations for offenders, the ability to include animals in protective orders, cost mitigation and recovery provisions for impounded animals, court-ordered forfeiture provisions, provisions for select agencies and professionals to report suspected abuse, and adequate animal fighting provisions.
Additionally, in Kentucky, veterinarians cannot report suspected abuse and humane officers are not given “broad law enforcement authority.”
In 2016, the Clark County Fiscal Court revised its ordinance which regulates the care and treatment of animals in the county. The same ordinance was adopted by the Winchester Board of Commissioners.
The ordinance outlines animal care including requiring adequate food, shade, shelter, water and veterinary care and also mandates licensing, vaccination and proper confinement.
According to the ordinance, dogs must be confined on the owner’s property. Dogs are allowed off the property when “accompanied by and in immediate control of its owner or his designee by way of a leash and harness or collar or if the canine is in a location designated for off-leash animals and under voice control of its owner.”
Acceptable methods of confinement include chain link, plastic, wood or other durable material fences that “would not be deemed hazardous to the animal,” an invisible fence or underground electrical-current fence or a chain/tie out provided it meet certain regulations set forth in the ordinance.
The ordinance prohibits mistreatment of animals, including physical abuse, failure to provide adequate resources and for the housing area to be excessively muddy or contain high water.
In regards to tethering animals, it is illegal for an owner to use a collar or harness made of wire, flat chain, chain with sharp edges or chain with rusty or non-uniform links. The tether or collar cannot weigh more than 5 pounds and be no less than 12 feet long with swivels at both ends. The tether must be fixed to an immobile point that “allows freedom of movement while withstanding the force necessary to restrain the dog.”
Violations can result in fines up to $500 and up to a year of jail time.
However, many dogs remain chained and neglected in Clark County.
“We could drive around right now and I could show you several cases where there are violations,” Miller said.
Wills said the local ordinance is vague in some areas, making it difficult to remove animals or prosecute.
“Standards of care are important,” she said. “The ordinance says animals have to have food, water, shelter, but those are not fully defined. It says this has to happen but doesn’t necessarily specify the standards. So much of it is up to interpretation. There’s a gray area that makes it hard to enforce or prosecute.”
Miller said when the fiscal court revisited the ordinance last year, her agency presented a model ordinance that would have outlawed tethering without owner supervision.
“Under that ordinance, you would be able to chain your dog for eight hours a day if you wanted, as long as you were there to supervise,” Miller said.
Miller said dogs that are chained and unsupervised can hang themselves in just minutes by climbing a fence or wrapping around a tree. Many die from heat stroke and others freeze to death in the cold winter months.
The group was able to advocate for and pass an owner-supervised ordinance in Franklin County in 2010, after a dog named “Big Boy” hung himself while chained.
“It sickens me that it takes these sort of cases to get something passed, though,” she said. “A quick search will show cities across the country passing laws against chaining. It’s becoming more and more common, but Kentucky is lagging.”
A 2016 study by Michigan State University College of Law shows that at least 20 U.S. states have laws regarding tethering, but Kentucky does not.
Miller said she was disappointed with the fiscal court’s option not to pass a no-tethering or supervised tethering law last year.
“You can still chain 24/7, the chain just can’t weigh more than 5 pounds and must be 12 feet long,” Miller said. “It doesn’t matter how long their chain is or that it only weighs 5 pounds, what matters is that it is chained and it’s living its life like this, and typically out of sight, out of mind.
“Because the court passed this particular ordinance, you still have cases like Spanky.”
She would like to see the Clark County Fiscal Court revisit the issue.
“Especially after Spanky’s case, I would like it if they saw that this is a problem that needs to be fixed,” she said. “Unfortunately, once something is on the books, it would probably be years before they would consider it again.
What can be done
When the laws don’t offer sufficient protection, Miller said organizations like hers, the animal shelter and other rescues take on the burden.
“People know of our organization and they contact us about a chained or pinned dog often. We go to the address and we try to offer assistance,” Miller said.
Sometimes, owners are willing to surrender their dog, which can then be placed in SOAR’s foster program. If they don’t want to surrender, SOAR offers some other options.
“We offer to build fences,” Miller said. “We tell the owners if they will take their dog off the chain, we will build a fence. We will pay for the fence and our volunteers will build it. They just have to agree to have their pet spayed or neutered.”
Often, that requirement is a deal-breaker, Miller said.
“We hear often that they are interested in breeding their dog, so we aren’t going to build a fence for someone to run a breeding operation in their back yard,” she said.
Wills said the shelter focuses on education and finding common ground about proper treatment for animals.
“There’s a generational split concerning how animals should be treated,” Wills said. “There’s an older generation that sees animals as something that should live on the farm. To them, a dog is a dog. Then there is a younger generation that is starting to see pets as part of the family. We have to find the common ground there and set some standards for what is acceptable. What’s the dividing line? What is fair for both groups?”
Along with strengthened laws, Miller would like to see repercussions strengthened and upheld.
“Owners are going to continue to do this stuff because they can,” she said. “We can educate all day long, but until a law is in place to make them stop, there are not going to. And until they are punished, they will continue doing it.”
Clark County’s Animal Ordinance
A local ordinance offers various protections and outlines standards of care. Below are some of the most basic mandates for dog owners.
— All dog owners must maintain a Clark County Dog License and renew it annually. The fee is $8.
— The owner of a domesticated animal shall have said animal vaccinated against rabies in compliance with KRS 258.015. Dogs must wear a tag confirming vaccination at all times.
— Dog owners must keep their pet contained to their property unless they are under their control by leash. Dogs are allowed off-leash in designated areas, but must be under voice control by owner. imals and under voice control of its owner.
— All animals must be provided adequate food and water, shade, shelter and vet care.
— Dogs may be confined by a fence built with non-hazardous materials, an underground electric fence or a tether/chain. Chains or collars can’t weigh more than 5 pounds and must be at least 12-feet long.
— Any animal involved in an alleged violation ofKRS 525.125, 525.130 or 525.135 may be confiscated and held at the Clark County Animal Shelter in a humane manner.