To the dismay of several citizens in the audience, Essex County’s board of supervisors decided against adopting a “running at large” ordinance that would put a muzzle on free-roaming dogs.
After a thorough review of both Virginia code and Essex County ordinances, Interim County Administrator Bill Pennell informed the board that, based on allowances by the state code, the county was already fully capable of handling threatening dogs.
“There are two enabling statutes that allow boards of supervisors to adopt local ordinances, one having to do with dogs running at large, and the other having to do with leash laws,” Pennell said. “They are in the state code and Essex County enforces those particular codes.”
Southern District Supervisor Margaret Davis asked Pennell how the county could police threatening dogs.
“Your ordinance says any dog that chases, snaps at, harasses, or impedes pedestrians, bicycles or vehicles is violating your ordinance, and the owner can be taken to court for a Class 3 misdemeanor with a maximum of a $500 fine,” Pennell replied.
Pennell cautioned the board that adopting a running at large ordinance could create more problems than it would solve.
“Running at large is a very, very difficult thing to enforce,” Pennell said. “Our animal control officer has been out now a week or ten days because he tried to catch one of those things running at large and has hurt himself.”
Pennell added: “Your county ordinances already say that if a dog is out there and… you don’t see a collar or a tag…he is presumed to be running at large and can be captured.”
Pennell also pointed out the ambiguous nature of the currently proposed ordinance to the board.
“If you have a group of hunters out there with their dogs, and at six in the evening three of their dogs don’t come back, those dogs are…technically violating the law if you adopt the running at large legislation that the code of Virginia provides,” Pennell explained.
Central District Supervisor Edwin “Bud” Smith agreed.
“It’s been my contention all along that the dogs running at large or the leash law would be unenforceable,” Smith said. “Having read our own ordinance time and time again, I don’t see anything that’s not in there that we need to put in there to protect our citizens and companion animals.”
Many citizens at the meeting were not satisfied with the board’s decision.
Alpaca farmer Wesley Gauvin, who lost 13 alpacas in a dog attack two months ago, questioned whether the county was properly enforcing the ordinances that Pennell addressed.
“The dogs responsible for the alpaca mauling had been picked up and released by the county four documented times and were released with no fines whatsoever,” Gauvin said. “A lot of problems I’m hearing about from talking to people in the county have been due to habitual offenses with the same dogs.”
Point Breeze resident Oza Bell, whose cat was killed by a dog that allegedly continues to roam her neighborhood, said that she didn’t believe the county was keeping accurate records of dog attacks.
“If I have no evidence, then my time is lost,” Bell believed. “I think for insurance purposes for the county that at least we would be keeping better records than we are.”
Pennell addressed claims that animal control was not giving accurate reports.
“If the animal control guy, John Lee, gets down there and the dog is gone, he’s going to clear the call as GOA, gone on arrival, and nobody knows what that dog was except the citizen that saw it, and they think some report comes of it,” Pennell explained adding that just because no report is filed does not mean appropriate actions were not taken to ensure public safety.
Greater Tappahannock Supervisor and Chairman E. Stanley Langford also addressed the enforcement issue.
“If the warden is in supply, and a call comes in at Laneview, he’s got a forty-five minute to one-hour drive, and when the warden gets there and looks, there’s no dog,” Langford said. “It takes ten calls to get that dog caught at the right time.”