Council to hear dog seizure proposal

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Dogs that attack and kill without provocation would be subject to immediate seizure by the city under a proposal headed to the City Council next month.

That’s a dramatic change from the current law, which leaves it up to animal control officers’ discretion over whether to take custody of dogs that have attacked other dogs or people. It’s generally rare for the city to seize such dogs.

The proposed ordinance calls for the city to take the dogs into custody after an attack that killed or seriously maimed a pet or person – either with the owner’s permission or by seeking court approval. The owner could contest the seizure in an administrative hearing.

Angel was killed by a neighbor's dog in May while on a walk with owner Betty Reeves in Four Hills. The attacking dog's owner was ordered to install a security door. (Courtesy of Betty Reeves)

Angel was killed by a neighbor’s dog in May while on a walk with owner Betty Reeves in Four Hills. The attacking dog’s owner was ordered to install a security door. (Courtesy of Betty Reeves)

The legislation is part of a debate at City Hall over how to better protect the public from dangerous dogs, following at least two fatal attacks last year on small dogs that were on leashes being walked by their owners.

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“We need to be able to do something about that so others aren’t hurt,” said Councilor Trudy Jones, who is sponsoring the proposal on behalf of Mayor Richard Berry.

The proposal is an amendment to “Angel’s Law,” an ordinance named after a boy mauled in 2004 while trying to protect his little sister from a dog attack.

Capt. Christopher Romero, who oversees Albuquerque’s animal control officers, said the changes would make it easier for the city to quickly confiscate a dog that attacks a person or pet. It doesn’t matter whether the attack happens outside, in public or in a person’s home, he said.

“I do think it’ll help protect the public in a lot of cases,” he said in an interview. “It’ll give the department the ability to go ahead and confiscate the animal until the case can be adjudicated or even until an owner can take remedial measures to repair a fence to prove to a court that the dog is safely confined.”

The city didn’t immediately try to seize the dogs involved in two high-profile attacks last year – on Angel, a small terrier mix in Four Hills, and Duncan, a small Maltese mix on the West Side. The Journal reported on the attacks, and owners of Angel and Duncan described how heartbreaking it was to see their small dogs mauled to death while out on walks.

They also objected to the city’s response and say they felt unsafe when the dogs remained in the neighborhood.

Duncan, a 10-pound Maltese, was attacked and killed by three dogs from their Ventana Ranch neighborhood while walking on a leash with owner Jack Cash in April 2015. (Courtesy of Jack Cash and Jen Braziel)

Duncan, a 10-pound Maltese, was attacked and killed by three dogs from their Ventana Ranch neighborhood while walking on a leash with owner Jack Cash in April 2015. (Courtesy of Jack Cash and Jen Braziel)

The dogs that attacked Duncan on the West Side were eventually seized by the city – months later, after another attack – and the owner was barred indefinitely from owning dogs within the city.

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As for the Four Hills attack that killed Angel, the dog’s owner was ordered to install a security door.

A 2005 state law allows local animal control officers to seize dangerous dogs that have caused injuries and pose an imminent threat to public safety. But the seizure is at the officers’ discretion, not mandatory, and the owners get the dog back if they meet certain requirements.

The proposed city ordinance:

  • Directs the city to try immediately to seize a dog that has killed or maimed a person or pet without provocation, either by seeking a warrant or with the owner’s permission. The seizure attempt is mandatory, not discretionary, and the city would keep the dog if a hearing officer agrees the dog killed without provocation.

The owner of a dog that has maimed – but not killed – a person or pet could get the dog back, depending on the outcome of an administrative hearing. The return would include certain restrictions.

  • Makes clear that the city has discretion on whether to try immediately to seize a dog that less seriously injures a person or pet.

The mayor’s proposed ordinance covers more than just attacks. It calls for the city to evaluate the dangerousness of dogs in its animal shelters or otherwise in city custody. Dangerous dogs couldn’t be put up for adoption or housed with the general population.

The city could transfer the dogs to private groups specializing in long-term care for dangerous dogs, as long as those groups don’t adopt them out.

The proposal comes amid scrutiny over how municipal animal shelters have handled dangerous, homeless dogs in city custody.

Private investigators for the city last year said “a number” of dogs that had failed canine aggression tests were adopted out to the public. And the city’s inspector general said the Animal Welfare Department had not only allowed dogs with problematic behavior to be adopted, but it had also failed to give potential owners vital information about shelter dogs that ended up biting people and harming other pets.

The proposed ordinance is scheduled for council consideration April 4.

It doesn’t change the insurance requirement for people who have dangerous dogs. They already must keep a minimum of $100,000 in liability insurance.

City Councilor Isaac Benton is considering whether to propose raising the insurance requirement when the bill comes up for discussion next month.

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