Cities look to tighten leash laws

Incidents with vicious dogs spark concern

All 11 cities on the Coast have leash laws. Some have wrestled with updating them in recent years as circumstances and technology change.

One is in the throes of a major update.

At least four incidents this year have Ocean Springs leaders looking at changing their laws governing dogs at large and vicious or dangerous dogs.

In one case, a stocky, pit-bull-looking dog running loose chased children in a subdivision. In another, a large, stocky dog tethered to a leash overrode its owner’s efforts and bit a jogger on the beach. And in another, a pit bull or pit bull-mix, running loose, jumped on a dog that was being walked on a leash and injured it, causing more than $1,000 in vet bills.

“We want to come up with standards that require the owner of a dangerous dog to be more responsible,” said Mayor Connie Moran. “If they have to build a better fence in the back, that’s the cost of having a guard dog or dangerous animal. That’s the direction we’re headed.”

Moran has used the Mississippi Municipal League resources to see what other cities have done.

New Albany, for example, is in the process of registering its dangerous dogs.

“We didn’t say ‘No pit bulls’,” New Albany’s building official, Mike Armstrong, said recently. “We didn’t go that far, but we did regulate them.”

New Albany requires registration with a fee, which has reduced the number of dangerous dogs, Armstrong said. Registration is an approach that appeals to Moran.

It’s not just the dogs running loose that Moran is hoping to target. With the help of the Humane Society of South Mississippi and others, Ocean Springs is looking at defining a dog that is dangerous as one that is potentially vicious, vicious being one that has bitten. These are the dogs that charge a fence every time someone walks by or hit the end of their chains, Moran said.

“We want to know where they are, and we want the owner to know that if it gets loose, they’ll have to pay a fine and the dog will be banned,” she said.

This would kick the city’s leash law up a notch.

“We’re pretty serious about it,” she said. “I’ve collected ordinances from seven cities … We want to give our officers the authority to determine if a dog is dangerous. They know the ones that are.”

In recent weeks, Moran and the Board of Aldermen also have enlisted the help of the city departments, police, and the animal control officer to strengthen the law. Eventually they will involve the city attorney, veterinarians and others who deal with animals regularly.

An incident two weeks ago only solidified the mayor’s resolve. A pair of dogs running loose downtown, in the heart of the quaint business district, cornered a cat in front of a business. One of the dogs mauled the cat to death, even after an employee kicked the dog, trying to stop it. A customer whacked the dog with a golf club and a postman maced it twice. A witness said the dog trotted off down Government Street covered in blood with the city’s animal control officer in pursuit. The owner was later cited.

“We want people to feel they can take a walk down the street, walk their own animal down the street or children ride their bikes without being intimidated by a dog,” Moran said.

The city is considering not allowing dogs at major events. It also is looking at banning them from running free on East Beach, one of the few Coast beaches where dogs are allowed. Moran lamented such a restriction, but suggested they would work toward a dog park for the city.

The process of updating leash laws is painful, but necessary, as technology and a city’s needs change, said David Waltman with HSSM. He praised other Coast cities for their efforts. Now that the technology is available, Gulfport requires micro-chipping under certain circumstances, he said.

And Ocean Springs has learned, like other Coast cities, that trying to apply the law to a certain breed, like pit bulls, won’t work. Moss Point, Gulfport and Long Beach, like others, have been through that discussion.

Moss Point updated its leash laws in 2007 after two pit bulls attacked two adults in a residential area.

Waltman said banning pit bulls misses the root of the problem, which is irresponsible pet owners. Some say you can’t enforce a law that’s breed-specific.

“If they can’t enforce it, it’s dead language on a book,” Waltman said. “It has to be fair to everybody, or it could be challenged.”

By KAREN NELSON – klnelson@sunherald.com

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