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Pet fees not likely in York County

York County leaders overseeing animal control won't support requiring pet owners to license their pets for a fee - but they might add "teeth" to an existing law designed to protect animals from neglect and abuse.

The York County's public works committee has been reviewing potential updates to the county's existing pet law, and the York County Council will hear a report when it meets Monday.

Committee members have been cold to the idea of charging licensing fees, which would, in theory, encourage spaying and neutering by offering lower fees for altered pets.

Those who opposed the plan argued it would be difficult to enforce.

Pam Ledbetter, a Rock Hill dog breeder, was one of about 60 people who attended a meeting last week to speak for or against licensing.

Increasing fees for animal violations might help curb problems, she told the committee, but fees will likely only hurt responsible pet owners.

People who are breeding pets irresponsibly will go underground and try to hide, she said Friday.

Setting fair fees for typical pet owners and those who breed animals responsibly or refrain from altering their pets for competition reasons also would be challenging, staff and county leaders said.

County staff estimate that charging $5 for spayed and neutered pets and $25 for unaltered pets would raise about $222,000 - but that's estimating only 20 percent compliance with the law.

That money likely would be used to pay for low-cost spay/neuter programs or other initiatives aimed at reducing the number of unwanted pets.

Councilman David Bowman said he doubts people would pay and likened licensing fees to extortion - taking money "from the people who are afraid not to pay it."

The fees don't "get down to the root of the problem," Councilman Bump Roddey said, which includes "backyard breeders," dogs that "just happen to get pregnant by the neighbor's dogs," or people who are fighting or generally mistreating animals.

Roddey said licensing fees and a mandatory spay or neuter law are likely off the table.

But some changes to the existing law still might be in order.

Many present at Tuesday's meeting agreed on one thing: The county should better enforce the laws it already has to reduce abuse and curb strays.

Citations issued this year for violations of the county's pet law have already doubled over last year.

Of nearly 12,000 calls for service last year, the county wrote 905 field notices and warnings and 41 citations, collecting $9,475 in fines.

Citations this year had reached 82 by the end of September. The county projects it will end the year with more than 100 citations and more than $21,000 in fines.

The newness of the law helps explain the jump from 2010 to 2011, said David Harmon, director of public works for the county.

"Our goal has never been to just go out and issue fines," he said.

Instead, officers try to educate violators about responsible pet ownership before issuing warnings or citations. Over the last five years, the percentage of shelter animals that find new homes has increased, according to animal control officials.

Need a better law

County staff who oversee animal control agreed that the existing law could be improved to give officers more authority to correct situations potentially harmful to pets.

The county passed a law in 2009 requiring that dogs on a chain or tether must have food, water and shelter, as well as tethers that aren't too heavy or too short.

Since then, animal control officers have responded to fewer incidents of dogs with heavy chains embedded in their necks and other violations - though those problems are still out there, said Steve Stuber, animal control supervisor.

And though it isn't always easy to prove whether an animal has been fed, officers can judge an animal's health through observation and field tests.

But the law's definition of "adequate shelter" needs clarification, animal control staff say. People can get just about any kind of shelter and say its acceptable, Stuber said.

The law defines shelter as an "enclosed, weatherproof dwelling" of sufficient size for the animal, which protects it from the "extremes of weather" and allows it to "remain comfortable in outside conditions."

Officers in the field come across a range of shelters, some less acceptable than others, such as fenced-in areas with tarps draped overhead, barrels turned on their sides, or travel crates with holes drilled in the top and sides.

Adequate shelter should provide warmth and protection from the elements. Water pooling in barrels and open-air containments such as fenced in areas might not provide the dry shelter or warmth an animal needs to be comfortable, staff said.

Giving animal control more options for dealing with pet owners who repeatedly bring litters in is also something officials will explore, if the County Council agrees to let them.

"Right now we can't force them to do anything," Stuber said. "When you get a spring litter and a fall litter year in and year out, we talk about spaying or neutering that animal. We try to promote that and offer suggestions on how that could be done at a minimal rate.

"We're educating all the time. It's frustrating for us to get the same people in."

More changes to tethering?

Those calling for a tethering ban argue the law doesn't go far enough to protect pets. Tethered animals can be nuisances or pose threats to neighbors, they argue.

But some strongly oppose a ban.

Joseph Neal owns eight dogs - three rescued from neglect, he said.

A tether is a tool, he argues, and if used responsibly, the best way to contain a pet when it cannot be supervised.

Neal wants the county to increase fees for violations of existing laws, rather than impose new restrictions.

A ban on tethering would simplify enforcement - the officer would only need to see whether an animal was tethered or not to determine a violation, staff say - but they haven't endorsed a ban. They're awaiting the County Council's direction on how to proceed.

Councilman Curwood Chappell said he dislikes tethering, having witnessed many a chain buried in the neck of an animal. But if animals must be tethered, he prefers a line that allows the animal to run back and forth with no entanglement.

"I don't know that there are any easy solutions" to the tethering issue, said Ledbetter, the breeder.

Tethering is some pet owners' only option for containing their animals safely, she said.

She owns three dogs that aren't tethered. They spend the day in an air-conditioned garage out of harm's way and where they won't be a nuisance to neighbors, she said.

"I just want people to take care of their animals," she said.

But some believe a tethering ban is necessary to protect the public.

"All of us in the office have seen kids, toddlers that get out of somebody's eyesight for a minute and wander into that radius of an aggressive dog and things are not good," said Martha Edwards, a pediatrician in Rock Hill.

Aside from safety, Edwards said, the issue should be about what message York County and Rock Hill want to send.

"What do we want our children to see?" she said. "What statement do we want to make about how we treat other living beings?"

Leaders too often take the attitude, "Well, that's the way they want to do it; we'll tolerate it," she said, adding that the county should have higher standards.