Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Dog Laws: A Case of "Pick Your Poison"

This dog has been housed and fed. What's the problem? I got 12 others in back.

First of all, thanks to all who took the time to help pull together a tour of dog limit laws in the 50 largest cities in the U.S.

A funny thing happened along the way. I took a list of the "50 largest cities" from "Info Please" but it did not have 50 cities on it -- it seems to have had 52. Whoops!

Odd, but there it is. No worries, we got information for all 52 cities, and quite a few other places as well.


I have sorted through the data for the 52 cities named in the original post, and there is not much correlation that I can see in terms of geography, politics or size.

The final tally was 21 cities with no limits, 30 cities with limits, and one city (Chicago) that has no limit right now, but may transition very soon to a 5-dog limit.

Out of 21 cities with no limits on the number of dogs that a resident can own, five are from Texas.

I suppose that is not too great a surprise. After all, Houston does not even have zoning, which means you can set a McDonald's Restaurant down in the middle of a residential neighborhood with no warning at all. Which, I supposes, is a warning in and of itself: If you don't want a McDonald's next to your house, don't move to Houston!

Even in Texas, however, there are cities with dog-limit laws. Both San Antonio and Dallas (the largest city) limit the number of dogs any one homeowner can have.

If we look at the other locations around the country, there is even less of a discernible pattern.

For example, San Francisco and Oakland are right across the Bay from each other. Oakland, on the one hand, has one of the most restrictive laws, with a 3-dog limit. San Francisco, on the other hand, has no limit at all.

Even within cities, the question of "liberal" versus "conservative" or "permissive" versus "authoritarian" does not really hold up.

Consider Los Angeles, for example, where there is no limit on how many dogs you can have, but a mandatory spay-neuter law is in effect. The same "no pet limit, but mandatory spay-neuter" policy is in effect in Denver, Colorado.

What's that about?

Simple: Both cities clearly want more shelter animals adopted out (therefore no limit on how many animals can be placed in a home), even as these same cities are willing to do almost anything to prevent more stray, abandoned, or relinquished dogs and cats from coming in to their shelters. Like it or not, these cities are trying to take action on behalf of the animals. You can fault method (I do), but not intent.

City size does not seem to have too much to do with local law. New York City, for example has no numerical limits on pet ownership, but neither does El Paso which is on the small size within our 52-city survey. Washington, D.C., Charlotte, N.C, and Colorado Springs all have limits, but not too much else in common so far as I can see.

Does population density have a role in triggering a dog-limit law? I have not done the math, but I do not think so. If there is any correlation at all, I suspect it is a very weak one.

So what is going on, so far as I can tell?

Simple: there is (pardon the mixed metaphor) more than one way to skin a cat.

All cities and towns in the U.S. have animal control problems -- the question is how to deal with them.

El Paso, Texas, for example has no limits on dog ownership but notes on its web site that:

  • Over 24,000 animals are impounded annually (approximately 77 per day);

  • Over 20,000 animals are killed annually (approximately 64 per day);

  • There are an estimated 100,000-150,000 stray animals in our community;

  • Almost 5,000 (16 per day) cruelty and bite investigations were conducted last year.

You do not need to be a math whiz to figure out El Paso's solution to canine- and feline-owner irresponsibility: the blue solution of quick euthanasia, some heavy-duty garbage bags, and a nearby land fill.

This is "shoot, shovel, and shut-up," animal control style.

Instead of taking the time to place animals in loving homes, El Paso animal control officers spend most of their time trapping strays and visiting houses where people are complaining about their neighbors.

Remember that noise and smell violations have to be documented repeatedly with multiple home visits. Arguments have to be made on both sides, warrants issued and served, health inspectors called, etc. It's a pretty involved and very labor intensive process. And it's also expensive.

Could El Paso do it differently and still have no limit on the number of dogs, cats and other animals a person could own?

Sure, but that would require a lot more animal control officers and a lot more money. In a place struggling with a lot of people problems it cannot afford, as well as an always-weak economy, the animal control budget in El Paso tends to get treated as an after-thought.

What about New York City? Here we see relatively few officers, considering the size of the population, but those officers (APSCA officials under contract with the City) have full police powers. That means that not only do they carry guns (in a city in which guns are mostly outlawed for citizens), they can use them to shoot you dead if need be. Do you want animal control to show up at your door with the power to arrest, use physical and deadly force, make car stops, issue summonses, and carry and use firearms, batons, pepper spray, and handcuffs? That's the New York City way of doing business -- no limits on dogs, but if animal control shows up, they can "heavy up" on you so fast, your head would spin. You think you have rights? Not when you're handcuffed to a wall, you don't!

New York and El Paso's animal control problems are not unique, of course.

Every city has stray animals, and every city also has pets in real distress from irresponsible owners. By the same token -- and to be completely fair -- every city also has a some extraordinarily loving, compassionate people who seem to be able to cope quite well with a large number of animals.

Most people, however, fall between these two extremes. These are the "regular people" who have one or two animals, and who treat them pretty well, even if they don't walk them quite as often as they should, and feed them a little too much.

In every city or town, however, there always seems to be a number of people who seem to be a bit too enthusiastic about pet ownership.

These folks are not hoarders; they are simply folks who want to own 12 dogs, six cats, four goats, five roosters, three parrots, a donkey, four peacocks, a pot-bellied pig, and a Capuchin monkey named Chico.

They are quite certain they can house all of these animals in a 3,000 square foot house sited on a 10,000 square foot yard. There's plenty of room! What's the problem?

And, of course, they think it should simply be a matter of "put your money down." No one should ever be able to raise a question about housing, food, cleanliness or capacity until after the shit hits the fan.

No prior restraint seems to be the watchword.

And if it doesn't work out, well, the city can always ride in to put the animals down ... or see if someone else wants them.

Of course, that will only happen after the expense of investigation, litigation, seizure, storage, and veterinary care, all paid for by the taxpayer.

And what about the neighbors?

"What about them? Screw that old man and his crazy wife. I have rights. If they don't like living next door to me, let them move."

That's what animal control officers hear every day. And, of course, all animal control problems are described as "personalities in conflict." The parrots really don't make noise. The peacocks do not wake the dead every morning. The owner of the five chickens asks the animal control officer straight-faced: "Who can object to a couple of cheerfully crowing roosters?" The dogs? "Sure they bark. Dogs do that. So what?"

And between it all, often right in the middle of a long-term festering feud between neighbors, is the Animal Control officer.

Arriving on the scene, he or she has no way way of knowing who is crazy, who is drunk, and who will be violent. All they know for sure is that they are probably about to get a parade of lies, exaggerations, obfuscations, and half truths from all sides. Sorting it out is never a "fun day at the office."

And so they look up river. Is there some way they can prevent some of this predictable conflict and misery?

One situation that shows up again and again, in the world of animal control, are the good people who wade in too far with the animals, and get themselves stuck in the mud whenever there is a change in life circumstances.

Things were fine (just barely) with 8 dogs, seven cats, and three parrots, but when the property owner got sick ... or lost her job ... or started drinking ... or got old ... or stopped taking her medication ... or had an illness in the family ... or went on vacation ... or had a fire ... then things quickly spiraled out of control.

Bad things happen to good people.

Sadly, when they do, that trouble too often rolls downhill on to the pets.

That is especially true when the entire system in the house is stressed to the breaking point because there are simply too many animals for one person to easily take care of.

Three or four dogs?

Most people can have couple of bad weeks and still cope with that responsibility.

Twenty-five dogs?

The scale here changes the circumstances. Noise goes up exponentially, as does waste and the potential for explosions of disease and parasites.

Shoveling the poop for 25 dogs is no small matter, and neither is feeding them and watering them.

Bathing 25 dogs? Walking 25 dogs once a day? Who has the time for that? It's all a body can do to scoop poop, feed and water!

So what do policy makers do in situation like this?

Some, quite reasonably, try to "manage predictable crisis" by fencing folks in for there own good, and for the community's.

The most obvious way to do that is to limit the number of animals people can own within city or town limits.

Some kind of animals, of course, may be prohibited completely (i.e. lions, roosters, and horses).

Other types of animals may be permitted only if the premises are inspected and a special license is granted and a fee paid.

Some cities recognize that they have a great diversity of property sizes within their urban boundaries, and may permit more animals (and even different kinds of animals) if a property is over a certain designated size.

The smartest locations provide wiggle room for some owners on some properties to have more animals provided the neighbors are OK with that, and the premises are regularly inspected and licensed. To be clear -- these kennel variances are not a right: they are a privilege extended by the city, in agreement with the neighbors, and conditional upon certain fees being paid and certain rules being adhered to.

No matter what Animal Control, urban planners, and local lawmakers do, however, one thing is for certain: at the end of the day someone will stand up and complain about how their rights have been violated.

The only question is whether it will be the neighbors who say they cannot sleep for the roosters, the barking and the stench coming from next door, or whether it will be the woman who claims a constitutional right to house own 22 dogs, six cats, four goats, five roosters, three parrots, a donkey, four peacocks, a pot-bellied pig, and a Capuchin monkey.

Of course, there is no such right.

Zoning laws have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, and so long as those zoning laws are clear and seem to have some colorable relationship to a public good (protection of property values, nuisance abatement, or public health), they will be upheld, and have been.

Does that mean that any numerical restriction will pass muster?

No, of course not. At the 2-3 cat-and-dog level, it is hard to argue that the broad remedy of a numerical restriction is a proper response to a specific animal control problem.

Above that level, however, things enter a gray zone, and good people can (and will) disagree.

Some people will argue (and some cities clearly agree) that no numerical restriction of any kind are needed -- that the city can simply raise taxes for more animal control officers, lawyers, and police to enforce nuisance and health laws, even as they fire up the euthanasia and crematorium machines back at the City Pound.

Others will suggest what Philadelphia has done -- set a high limit on the number of dogs that are permitted, embrace a no-kill philosophy, and contract with a local SPCA or Humane Society to enforce whatever nuisance, pet limit, or quality-of-care laws are on the books.

Since the local SPCA or Humane Society are under contract with the City, all the workers know that they must thread the needle of keeping the local shelter spotless, keeping all the strays off the street, and making sure they are not over-zealous when it comes to law enforcement.

At the same time, the contract SPCA or Humane Society must not be too slow to seize animals in misery, or too reticent to punish those who victimize through negligence, stupidity, or psychosis.

Finally, and, just to top it all off, the local SPCA or Human Society must manage to place into permanent and loving homes nearly every old, sick, broken, and poorly socialized animal that is turned over to them, or that is caught, seized or abandoned on their door.

An easy job? No.

A job that pays really well? No.

A job where you are loved and respected and given daily thanks from a grateful community? No.

So that's the situation.

Real cities and real towns have real dog and cat problems that really need to be addressed. A lot of good people have been trying, for a very long time, to find an answer. Different people have come up with different solutions, none entirely perfect, but some (arguably) better than others.

So what do YOU want?

Do you want an El Paso, where there are no limits and the dogs are killed in wholesale lots and strays roam everywhere?

Or do you want a Los Angeles or Denver, where there are no limits but mandatory spay-neuter laws along with a regular animal control operation (that may also kill a lot of dogs back at the pound)?

Do you want a New York City, where there are no limits, and few officers, and a lot of dogs and cats in misery as a consequence, but where, when the ASPCA does show up, they can arrest you and even shoot you if need be?

Or do you want a Miami, where people with more money (i.e. larger properties) get to have more dogs and cats than those with less money (and smaller properties)?

Or do you want a place like Kansas City, where there's a four-dog limit but you can get a variance for up to 10 dogs if your neighbors agree and you pay some money and get an inspection?

Or do you want Philadelphia, where there's a 12-dog limit, and everyone is treated equal, and there's a contract SPCA to ride in and sort things out with the most egregious offenders?

Or do you have something else in mind? Feel free to illuminate in the comments section of this post.


Water Over The Dam said...

This is interesting, thanks. In Oakland (CA, my hometown) the original push to limit the number of dogs was originally set off in the 1980s by a man who kept his coonhound pack in a neighborhood of small houses on small lots. Years of complaints and police irritation about the constant calls led to the proposal of an ordinance that limited the number of pets (total!) to two; ridiculous and eventually voted down, but at the hearing I remember someone presenting research that showed that the number of dogs a person could care for was eleven small, 5 large. (I can't find any such research, sorry, but perhaps you might know about it.) San Francisco has always been dog friendly, with dogs in the parks and even allowed on public transportation -- but it also has very active rescue and humane organizations.
I now live in the rural midwest, and have long noticed that towns and communities in the country here tend to have very restrictive dog laws (Sturgis, MI: 2; more is a kennel, which is outlawed.) I'm not sure why that is.

To answer the question - on the whole I would prefer that the number of dogs kept be up to the owner - but people here would not ever agree to having their property inspected. It is also the land of the "Teaparty" people who would not want fees and taxes raised to support the Philadelphia-style SPCA contract. So what we have are ongoing battles between those local politicians who want to "nicen" up the town by getting rid of dogs, and the all-volunteer humane group that pushes back, does rescue, provides funds for spay/neuter, etc. Maybe that's how it should be. Sorry this is so long.

The Dog House said...

I have real issues with assigning a number. I know that when I read "25 dogs" I think WOW that's too many dogs! However, when I tell someone that we've got three dogs, two cats and nine parrots (plus foster dogs - one at the moment), I know that other people go WOW that's too many pets!

However, my dogs are quiet, healthy, well trained and extremely well cared for. Much more so than the single dog down the road, tied to his dog house on a chain 24/365, scratching at his fleas, wading in his own filth and barking his poor head off out of boredom.

And yet, our city's bylaws state that only TWO pets are allowed. That's TWO - TOTAL. Cats, dogs and rabbits are included in this total. Two rabbits and a cat? One pissed of neighbour angry about how crooked you parked last night or how you put the garbage out wrong can cause you a WORLD of trouble.

We've been petitioning to have the limit removed. We would like to see local AC adopt the practices of Calgary, currently the most progressive city in Canada when it comes to Animal Control. No limit, great license compliance, almost 150 dog parks, low kill rates (that are lower every year!) and low cost s/n clinics.

Our AC was assessed by an efficiency expert and actually agreed with us that adopting Calgary's model was the best way to go. That was four years ago, and city council still has yet to discuss the report in any meaningful way. Meanwhile, perfectly law abiding citizens are being fined and having their pets removed from them thanks to an arbitrary number in an overly restrictive bylaw.

And yes, AC will absolutely remove the animals over the limit. All it takes is for the original complainant to demand that it happen. The bylaw is clear - and they will carry it through. It's sick, really...

Sheila said...

I yearn to be idolize the idealism of Philly, but truth be told, the limits should probably be closer in relation to the size of the property, the way Miami regulates pet ownership.

Philly has a good idea though - having the local SCPA on board - but 12 dogs would be way too much for someone to have in a townhouse, let alone an *apartment*... which is what would happen. The sheer amount of crap (literally) is unthinkable.

themacinator said...

this is a very well thought out, unbiased (to me), thought provoking post. i will have to think about it- oakland is my hometown and i'm just not sure how i feel about the law. interesting to compare it to other cities and to SF- which is a whole different ballgame in so many ways.

Miki said...

I linked to this article today on a poodle list I'm on, and re-read it for the umpteenth time.

Thanks, again, for being so reality based, Patrick.