The wrong tree

Pet activists hound City Hall, but are they off the scent?

MARCIA MURPHY was working at the full-service Texaco near Discovery Park last January when she went to return change to a customer. As she did so, the man's dog suddenly shoved his head through the window and bit her arm.

"I was in shock," says Murphy. "I hollered at [the driver]." As she wrote down his license plate, he drove off, she claims. She did not need stitches but says she still gets pain and numbness in her arm.

The man eventually pled guilty to a gross misdemeanor. (Reached by phone, he did not wish to be named or quoted.) But the man still owns his dog, which is identified in court papers as a pit bull, and he will not have to serve any jail time so long as he and the dog go a year without incident. Murphy, on the other hand, complains, "I'm scarred for life. These people with these kind of dogs, they've gotta learn. It's not right."

After the intense hubbub surrounding off-leash areas a couple of years ago, the debate over dogs in Seattle is about to rear up again. This Thursday, March 29, City Council member Jan Drago will hold a public workshop on Seattle's rules governing "dangerous animals." However, it's likely that most of the fang-bearing will be done not by dog victims like Murphy but by pet activists, at whose insistence the meeting was called. They argue that the city is being overly harsh on dogs. The irony of the activists' campaign is that they may be barking up the wrong tree.

A group of pet crusaders known as DOG (Dangerous Ordinance Group) has been busy whipping up dog-owner anxiety over Seattle's "dangerous animal" law, which was amended last summer without any public hearing (see "Scary creatures," SW, 3/1). Under the new law, Animal Control officers can declare a pet "potentially dangerous" if it shows aggressive behavior when unprovoked and off its own property. The activists complain that the "potentially dangerous" citation can encompass "things that normal dogs do" and that an owner cannot appeal the notice. Once the owner has been warned, future incidents can cause the dog to be declared "dangerous," which gives Animal Control the right to destroy the animal, though the owner can appeal.

City officials insist that the law has not changed in any significant way, and the data seems to bear them out. The number of "first offense" doggy citations has not increased since the new law went into effect, nor has the number of people prosecuted for owning a dangerous animal (a civil offense).

THE CITY HAS, HOWEVER, ramped up its actions against dog owners—just not in a way that DOG seems to have noticed. Thanks to a new law that went into effect last year—also without public hearing—the city can now haul dog owners into court for "negligent control of an animal," a crime that previously did not exist.

Under this law, anyone whose dog, due to the owner's negligence, inflicts bodily injury on another person can be charged with a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail or a $5,000 fine. The law "added a lot to what can be prosecuted," says Mike Finkle of the city attorney's office.

It used to be that in order to prosecute in a dog case, the city had to show that an owner had previous knowledge of a pet's "vicious tendencies." Now pet owners can be charged at first bite. As Finkle notes, "Violation of the leash law is automatic negligence."

Last year alone, 55 cases of "negligent control" were referred to the prosecutor's office for possible charges. By contrast, only a dozen cases were pursued under the "dangerous animal" ordinance that has incurred the activists' wrath.

Daniel Peterson, a pastor with Bethel Christian Ministries in downtown Seattle, faced "negligent control" charges last year after his daughter's German shepherd lunged at a passerby, biting her on the arm and thigh. Peterson says he was on "a church-related community project" and that the dog was on a 6-foot leash tied to a truck in the church driveway when the woman approached. "I guess she thought he was friendly," he says. (The victim could not be reached for comment.)

Peterson wanted to resolve the case as quickly as possible; to do that, he says, he had to give up the dog. "The prosecutors said to my attorney, 'If you want to move ahead in this case, you need to get rid of the dog,'" Peterson claims. (However, a review of city case files indicates the city does not always demand surrender of the animal in "negligent control" cases.)

He brought the dog to a shelter, where, he found out later, it was put down. "This was a beautiful dog," he says. "It had police academy- type training."

Under his agreement with the city, the charges against Peterson will be dropped in a year if he commits no other offense and pays restitution to the victim. "I never realized the city had this new law," Peterson says. "If any animal does bodily injury to someone on a public right-of-way, it's a crime now, which I think is very extreme." He says his animal hadn't been proven to be aggressive—"He was defending his property."

Of course, bite victims see the matter differently. "I feel like the law is way too loose," says Curtis Brown, who was bit by an off-leash husky—one with a previous offense—while jogging in his south Seattle neighborhood. "I see dogs [off leash] all the time. The penalties must not be very harsh." Brown thinks a vicious dog is like a gun: "It's fine if you want to own one, but you need to take your precautions so it doesn't affect me."

DOG leader Carol Watts believes that owners should be given a chance to get training for their dogs. She says, "I draw a distinction between a single bite or nip as opposed to a mauling attack. Often dogs nip for a variety of reasons; it's not the same as an aggressive attack. They're just trying to give a message."

For his part, the man in the hot seat, Animal Control chief Donald Jordan, says, "Animal behaviorists can probably justify just about anything that a dog does. It doesn't mean it's an acceptable form of behavior in the city of Seattle."

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