Scary creatures

City Hall trembles as pet activists howl.

IT MUST SAY SOMETHING about the state of Seattle politics that for several years now, the issue about which the citizenry has become most reliably exercised is doggies. The debate over off-leash areas in Seattle parks a couple of years ago produced such howling and gnashing of teeth that it practically brought down City Hall. "Dog ownership in the city of Seattle is a very hot topic," says Donald Jordan, the head of Seattle Animal Control. "Maybe it's cyclical."

In the newest uproar, a group of pet activists is busy inflaming dog owners over a city law that was amended last year. According to a petition circulated by the activists, "The recent revision . . . could cause many gentle, loving companion animals to be classified as dangerous and killed." At dog runs and pet stores and via a huge e-mail distribution list generated during the off-leash campaign, the freshly organized pet-owning pack has gathered over 3,000 signatures and raised enough of a stink to cause City Council member Jan Drago to convene a public forum at Seattle Center. At a time when a fatal mauling in San Francisco has raised national awareness about dog dangers, Seattle stands accused of being too tough.

The campaign is co-led by Mitzi Leibst, a former Army intelligence officer and longtime city gadfly, whose concerns actually extend well beyond last summer's code changes. "For years and years and years," she charges, "the city's gotten away with this kind of fascist mentality on dog bites. Seattle is one of the few jurisdictions in the state that doesn't allow you to have a dangerous dog. That's just crazy." Washington state law permits you to own nasty dogs, she notes, so long as they're kept in a proper enclosure with warning signs and muzzled when taken out for their constitutional.

Leibst herself concedes that, in some respects, last year's code changes actually created a more flexible and lenient system. For example, the law allows dogs-gone-bad to be sent to a shelter rather than to the big doghouse in the sky. Nevertheless, Leibst and her fellow activists in the Dangerous Ordinance Group (or DOG) have gotten dog owners alarmed by portraying the ordinance as a frightening new "two strikes" law for Fifi.

Under the ordinance, the city can label dogs as "potentially dangerous" if they behave aggressively when off the owners' property and unprovoked (or if they outright bite someone on their home turf). Once the city has handed out a citation, the dog owner is on notice; future incidents could lead Animal Control to declare the animals "dangerous" and move for their "humane disposal" (or exile to a shelter).

The activists complain that the definition of "potentially dangerous" is "so vague that it classifies a lot of normal dog behaviors as vicious," says Carol Watts, one of the campaign leaders, in an e-mail blast to dog owners. "Dogs that are just . . . chasing a cat or barking at the mailman . . . [could be] taken away from their owners and killed."

The "potentially dangerous" citation cannot be appealed, Leibst points out: "Due process is missing. That's a true American safeguard." The person lodging a complaint against your dog can also remain anonymous, so that you don't know who's making the charge. "There's no telling what motivates the complainants," Leibst argues. "It could be because the lady across the street didn't like where you parked your car."

Activists also raise the specter of a bureaucracy out of control. Says Leibst, "These little dogs nip someone, and right away Seattle Animal Control is jumping up and down saying, 'Let's kill it, let's kill it!'" A pamphlet from DOG states, "The Manager of Animal Control can unilaterally declare a dog dangerous and order it exiled or killed. . . . [The manager] is afforded entirely too much power."

DONALD JORDON, Animal Control's manager, says he has had that unilateral power all along; it was not introduced in last year's ordinance. And he says he's used that power "maybe 12 times since 1994," in cases in which the dogs inflicted severe injury on just the first incident, before there was a chance to issue a warning. He has not used that power once since the new ordinance went into effect.

Jordan contends that last year's changes—which were designed, in part, to bring Seattle's code into conformance with state law—were not that significant and did not result in any kind of new crackdown from his office. "Under the old ordinance, we'd issue warning notices for animals displaying 'vicious propensities' about once per day on average," says Jordan, and his office is still issuing warnings at the same rate. The new ordinance even exempts animals that were in some way "provoked," whereas the old law excused them only if they were "tormented or hurt."

Jordan says the state's public disclosure laws require that complainants be allowed to remain anonymous, though he says if the case ever goes to court, the person's identity would come out. These kinds of complaints "can be a he-said-she-said," says Jordan. "If no one was around besides the complaining party, we have to ascertain their credibility."

Jordan concedes there is no appeals process for the "potentially dangerous" warning. However, he says the notice "in itself does not deprive anybody of property; we're not taking any action against them as a result." Nor, he says, does a second incident "necessarily mean that we're going to take further action. Could a dog owner receive several of those notices? Yes."

"I can certainly understand that no one likes their animal to be deemed 'potentially dangerous,'" says Jordan. And he notes that Animal Control officers "are going to make mistakes when they're responding to over 20,000 calls for service every year." But, he says, "Ninety percent of these cases could have been prevented. Mainly it's just leashing up your animal."

But Mitzi Leibst says, "I don't believe to criminalize this sort of thing is appropriate. When a dog bites somebody, it's usually a surprise to the owner. To be hauled down to criminal court with the muggers and thieves is totally wrong. We have to figure out why the dog bit somebody."

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