Make a Choice: Animal Control or Animal Uncontrol

Existing laws make our communities unsafe by restricting animal control to the authorities, and subjecting us to the possibility of civil and criminal penalties if we kill or wound an attacking dog. This is unfair and there are ways to change it.

A recent case illustrates one of the greatest issues in dog bite law, namely whether vicious dogs should be dealt with solely by the animal control authorities or, in the alternative, by a combination of formal action by the animal control authorities in addition to individual action by people threatened by those dogs. To put it bluntly, the issue is whether someone who is threatened by a vicious dog can kill or wound it without having to defend against civil or criminal charges for doing so. I believe that the policy of restricting this ability to animal control authorities is inadequate and dangerous, and that laws should be enacted to share their power with the people. 

Klonda Richie complained 60 times to animal control authorities about the dogs next door, and they eventually killed her. Her survivors fought a court battle for the right to sue the director of the animal control department. They won. The Ohio court recognized that animal control officers make mistakes that cause Americans to be brutally killed by vicious dogs in our homes, our gardens and our streets. (For more about that case, see Merritt Clifton, “Animal control director can be sued for dog attack death, court rules,” http://www.animals24-7.org/2016/08/05/animal-control-director-can-be-sued-for-dog-attack-death-court-rules/, accessed 8/17/16.)

But not all courts and prosecutors see it that way. Patrick Byrnes, 32, was charged with misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animal and discharging a firearm within Idaho Falls’ city limits in April 2016. A pitbull threatened him and so he shot it dead. The dog’s owner, Marcus Beck, felt that his animal was simply being friendly. Local prosecutors forced Byrnes to defend himself at a criminal trial. The jury acquitted him. Common sense prevailed. (The news report of that case is at http://idahostatejournal.com/news/local/east-idaho-man-acquitted-in-animal-cruelty-case/article_c39218ad-96b7-5bec-9448-1a6e43fc6ae2.html, accessed 8/17/16.)

In my 25 years of handling dog bite cases, I have received a number of messages from anguished parents, veterans and others who dealt with attacking dogs purely out of self-defense but then were prosecuted for it. One father was facing the revocation of his license to practice psychology because he shot the neighbor’s pitbull when it entered his yard to attack his young daughter a second time, one year after it attacked her and disfigured her. A veteran faced animal cruelty charges for killing a pitbull that repeatedly attacked him in his wheelchair, once biting through one of the wheels and destroying it. In all of these cases, the people who were charged with crimes had repeatedly called animal control about the threats to their lives, without getting the help they needed.

Being forced by our laws to live on a street with vicious dogs and irresponsible owners is nothing short of tyranny and cannot be tolerated.  The authorities cannot claim to have the sole legal right to deal with vicious dogs, and then permit them to terrorize our communities.  Every animal control department should be held liable for the consequences of allowing vicious dogs to exist within their jurisdictions.

It is a little known fact, however, that law enforcement authorities cannot be held responsible for failing to protect a person unless there is a specific law stating so, or the authorities increased the person’s risk after establishing a special relationship with him or her that promised such protection. That’s what the Klonda Richie court decision rests upon, but it should not be that way at all, at least when it comes to animal control. To keep our communities safe, two new laws should be enacted everywhere. First, there should be a law stating that certain aspects of animal control are a mandatory duty of the jurisdiction which shall subject it to liability for negligence, with no limitation on a plaintiff’s other remedies. Second, there should be another law stating that a person who reasonably believes he or another person to be threatened by a dog shall have the right to kill or wound it and shall not be subjected to civil or criminal liability for doing so. (For the proper wording of these laws, see Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips’ Model Dog Bite Statute at https://www.dogbitelaw.com/model-dog-bite-laws/model-dog-bite-statute.)