Columbia weighs allowing more dogs, faster prosecution of animal abusers

03/31/2014 9:17 PM

03/31/2014 10:46 PM

Columbia dog lovers would be allowed to have three pets, instead of two, per household if City Council goes along with proposed changes in animal-control laws.

Prepare for the racket or for a whole lot more love-licks, depending on which side of the pet debate you’re on.

Irresponsible, even dastardly, pet owners would find themselves in court sooner and facing fines possibly as much as $1,900 should council adopt a provision dealing with animal cruelty and proper care.

Call it quicker jurisprudence for pets.

The last of three significant changes proposed by the city’s animal services division would formally get the Columbia Police Department and animal control officers out of the squirrel-trapping business, leaving the job to residents, as it has been in practice for several years.

Council is to take up on Tuesday rewrites in animal laws, some of which are at least 25 years old, said animal services superintendent Marli Drum. A second vote will be required before the changes would take effect.

“There will be some ups and downs to this,” Drum said Monday of barking complaints that likely would follow an increase in numbers of permitted dogs. “But I think there will be more ups.”

The pluses to allowing pet owners to have more dogs is that it’s likely to lower the numbers of strays euthanized and raise the chances of adoption of dogs already at the city animal shelter, Drum said.

The change also would legalize dog owners who already have three dogs, she said.

The city has no limit on the number of cats an owner may have.

Anyone who has four or more dogs — up from the current three — would have to operate as a non-commercial kennel, Drum said. That would mean owners would have to meet construction and maintenance standards for such a kennel as well as be inspected annually at the rate of $100 per inspection, according to the language in the draft that council will consider.

Under current city animal-mistreatment practices, a police officer must write a report in order to prosecute an offender under state law. An animal control officer then gets a summons against an offender from a city judge, she said.

Then cases must be scheduled in city court, months-long waits are not unusual, Drum said. Beside the expense to the city, “It’s no fun for the animal to be held that long,” she said.

It costs the city $14 per day to hold an animal and court dates sometimes take three to six months. Holding fees can quickly climb to as much as $2,300 for the slowest cases. The proposed change would streamline that process and create a new city mistreatment law.

“Right now we don’t have an ordinance to address that,” Drum said.

Squirrel complaints had been handled by animal services officers for years even though current city law makes that a police responsibility.

“We used to set traps,” Drum said, estimating the numbers at five to 10 per week. “It was like creating a black hole. The squirrel kept coming back.”

The city quit trapping squirrels two to three years ago and suggested to property owners that they hire private pest control or animal-trapping businesses.

The change would require residents or the business to “humanely trap ... and appropriately relocate” squirrels. Problems with any other wildlife require residents to contact the state Department of Natural Resources for guidance, Drum said.

It has not been decided what the city penalties for pet owners or pet offenders will be, she said.

But the maximum for most city law violations is $1,929.50 including court costs or 30 days in jail, said Dana Turner, Columbia’s chief municipal judge.

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