In an attempt to head off attacks by vicious animals on people and their pets, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a law regulating animals’ “aggressive and menacing” behavior.
The ordinance, which takes effect in 30 days, requires those who control an animal that is judged to be menacing or aggressive to “immediately confine it to a secure enclosure or location” as soon as they are told the animal has violated the ordinance.
It puts in place a system of fines for those who own such animals and, if they are renters, also holds their landlords responsible.
Fines will be $100 for a first occurrence, $200 for a second, and $500 for each subsequent incident during the first year. The vote was 4-1, with Supervisor Frank Mecham opposed.
Although it lays out broad general definitions for when an animal could be considered menacing or aggressive, it leaves animal control officers with discretion to make on-the-spot decisions that will give them leeway to judge an animal’s demeanor and potential threat before it has attacked anyone.
“I trust the professionalism of the folks who do that work for the county,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said. He likened it to the discretion that police officers have.
That trust was not shared by some speakers, who said giving animal control officers such latitude could “be used in a malicious way,” as speaker Giselle Naylor of Oceano put it.
Some speakers and supervisors worried that making a landlord responsible for tenants’ animals might lead landlords to stop renting to pet owners. But that argument did not prevail, nor did attempts to remove landlords from the ordinance. “Without teeth, some landlords will ignore it,” Supervisor Adam Hill said of the ordinance.
Hill said the ordinance is about public safety and reiterated his earlier remarks that people should not have to worry about being “terrorized while walking a dog.”
One speaker, Robin O’Hara of Nipomo, described a “horrendous attack” that she endured March 22. She was walking her dog and they were attacked by two pit bulls, O’Hara said. A neighbor fought the pit bulls off with a shovel, which she believes saved her dog’s life.
She later learned the pit bulls belonged to a renter in the neighborhood and had left the house through a window.
“We’re all terrified now,” she said of herself and her neighbors, adding that she has bought pepper spray. She asked that the fines be higher.
County officials took the proposal to supervisors intending to fill a hole in current law; the county can act against an aggressive animal only after it has attacked.
Although the ordinance isn’t aimed at a specific breed of animal, dogs would be the most affected.
Under the definitions adopted by supervisors, an aggressive animal is one “whose behavior indicates it is prone to unprovoked attacks against a person or animal.”
A menacing animal is one that “through its behavior, demonstrates an intention to inflict harm or otherwise place a person in reasonable fear for his or her safety, or the safety of animals kept by him or her.”
The new definition of severe bodily injury in the ordinance reads “any physical injury which results in deep lacerations with separation of subcutaneous tissues, muscle tears or lacerations, fractures or joint dislocations, or permanent impairment of locomotion or special senses.”
The ordinance includes provisions that would allow animal owners to contest decisions of animal control officers.
In an earlier report to supervisors, Health Agency Director Jeff Hamm and Animal Services Manager Eric Anderson wrote that the Animal Services Division receives hundreds of reports of aggressive animals every year in San Luis Obispo County.
The division regularly receives calls from people who, while walking on public sidewalks, pass aggressive dogs that they feel are threatening and inadequately confined, they wrote.
The pedestrians are dismayed, they wrote, “to be told that unless an animal actually succeeds in escaping the property and attacking a person or animal, there is little that Animal Services can do.”
Under the ordinance, it “won’t be illegal to own an aggressive animal,” Anderson said. “But if you do, you have to take appropriate measures to keep it confined.”