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January 18, 2005 > Gimme Shelter...Protecting Outside Dogs

Gimme Shelter...Protecting Outside Dogs

by Nancy Lyon

The California Penal Code states "... whoever, having the charge or custody of any animal, either as owner or otherwise, subjects any animal to needless suffering, or inflicts unnecessary cruelty upon the animal, or in any manner abuses any animal, or fails to provide the animal with proper food, drink, or shelter or protection from the weather... is, for every such offence, guilty of a crime punishable as a misdemeanor or as a felony or alternatively punishable as a misdemeanor or a felony and by a fine of not more than twenty thousand dollars ($20,000)."

It would seem clear that anyone who is caught abusing an animal in this manner is in for serious trouble. But the question arises what are proper food, drink and shelter? That's where the law falters. In its attempt to allow flexibility to fit the many situations faced by law enforcement, the code's vagueness has in too many cases taken away from animal services the power to act. This is primarily because it does not define what the minimum humane requirements are for companion animals housed outdoors.

Two boards over a patch of muddy ground, green and slimy water in a rusty bucket, and table scraps on the ground can fall within the definition of acceptability given the definition of existing law. In many cases officers respond to calls to assist an animal in need with only the power to be able to deliver a warning and hopefully educate uncaring or uninformed "guardians."

In an effort to address the present gap in the law, the Board of Supervisors of the City of San Francisco this month took up the challenge and passed an ordinance that required a more humane treatment of "backyard dogs." Under the new law outdoor dogs must have: 1) water that's is changed at least once daily and in a non-tipping bowl, 2) food that is palatable, nutritious and capable of maintaining body condition, 3) a clean, dry shelter with room for a dog to turn around that must have a top, a bottom that is elevated 2 inches off the ground and three sides, 4) and tethering, which is highly discouraged as a way of keeping a dog in the backyard, but if used must be ten feet or more with a non-choke collar or body harness or a pulley-like system. Animals of the homeless would be exempt from the ordinance.

Carl Friedman, Director of San Francisco Animal Care and Control, responded to those who questioned if the ordinance gave more consideration to animals than the plight of the homeless. He stated that when faced with the realities of the inhumane treatment of animals dealt with on a regular basis, "Look at some of these abandoned and mistreated animals I deal with and you'll feel differently." Urging the Supervisors to support the legislation, he said, "The ordinance will give us tools to educate owners. What it really does is tell the owner what the minimum requirements are if they are going to keep their dog outside."

San Francisco's move to promote a more humane and enforceable ordinance for the protection of "backyard dogs" is not the first. The ordinance is modelled on a similar law in Los Angeles directed at residents who chose to keep their dogs outside. The passing of San Francisco's ordinance signals that it is time to look to the flaws in our local laws where, except in the more extreme cases, animal service agencies are often restricted from protecting these loyal and deserving companion animals.

Our local animal service agencies are often faced with animals in similar inhumane situations and because of the imprecise wording of the existing state law, often cannot protect them. These are animals that are sick, chained, wet and cold with little protection from the elements; animals who fall marginally within the letter of the law go undefended. Even when they are able to remove animals from extremely poor circumstances, they may have to be euthanized because of severe medical and behavioral problems associated with the conditions they were forced to live in.

Unfortunately, many Tri-City residents view dogs as "outside only" animals to use for protection or amusement when time is "available." Many quietly suffer from inadequate care and protection from the elements while others in desperation escape to the dangers of the street.

Those in whom the welfare of these wonderful creatures is placed need to know that the animals in their trust have strong protection under the law and that it will be enforced. When the need arises, animal service agencies need an effective tool to protect animals in harm's way - education backed up by true power in enforce sends an effective message.

Compassion costs little and yet reaps a great reward. There would be less call for animal services, fewer abuse cases and hearings, fewer animals impounded and perhaps euthanized, lessening the strain on already overtaxed animal shelter and services. And there will be far less suffering and a greater quality of life for some very special creatures.

It seems the time is right to consider the passage of similar local legislation. It's a logical and compassionate progression, and it's up to those who care to speak up for the animals.

The Ohlone Humane Society only adopts dogs and other animals as indoor living members of the family.

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