Dangerous Dogs: City working to hold owners responsible

The city of Lafayette is working to hold pet owners responsible for their aggressive animals.
The city of Lafayette is working to hold pet owners responsible for their aggressive animals.

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) – An estimated 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs every year in the United States, according to the American Humane Association. In Lafayette, there were 55 reported bites in 2013. Animal Control officers said many bites do not require medical attention, but in rare cases the attacks are so brutal a person has to undergo multiple surgeries.

It’s a debate held often in communities. Is the animal responsible or the owner? In a special series News 18 takes a closer look at how the city of Lafayette is working to pinpoint the source of the problem.

Communities across the United States are working to bring the number of dog bites down. Some are choosing new legislation, but the city of Lafayette is choosing a different route and it can land pet owners behind bars.

“People should not live in fear in their neighborhoods,” Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski said. “People should be able to walk down their street without being afraid that they are going to be bitten or the dog that they’re walking that is under control is going to be mauled or bitten. That has to be our number one priority.”

That’s exactly what happened in a span of a few weeks late last year. News 18 first reported the story of a woman whose hands were badly injured when she was attacked by two pit bulls while walking her dog, and a man whose hand was severely injured after his son’s pit bull attacked him. The cases were related. The dogs involved in the attack had the same owner.

“If they are going to have an aggressive animal there needs to be certain steps and procedures and precautions that they need to use,” Animal Control Supervisor Josh Klumpe said.

Of the reported dog bites in the city of Lafayette there were 55 bites to humans. Twenty-three of those bites were from pit bulls. Many communities across the United States have enacted breed specific legislation that prohibits ownership of certain breeds like pit bulls or Rottweilers.

“We would prefer to stay away from breed specific if at all possible and really address the problem with a particular animal and that particular owner,” Roswarski said. “That’s the preferable method to handle this and that’s the direction we’re moving now.”

“A lot of the animals that we deal with are those breeds that would be targeted by breed specific legislation and for the most part they seem to be targeted in an unwarranted manner,” Almost Home Humane Society Executive Director Stacy Rogers said. “There are lots of great bully breeds and there are lots of great dogs out there in the community. At least in our opinion it should be focused on each individual dog rather than categorizing a breed as a whole.”

Instead, the city of Lafayette is taking a different approach. With a newly revamped Animal Control department Lt. Scott McCoy said Animal Control Officers are making their presence known in the community. ACOs have the ability to issue a Dangerous Animal Agreement when a dog bites another person or animal. In 2013 there were 13 DAAs issued in Lafayette. Under that agreement owners must adhere to a stricter set of rules including taking extra precautions to keep their animal restrained and preventing the attack from happening again. If the agreement is violated Animal Control can take the animal away.

“You hope that the ACOs are able to make that change in behavior for the owners as they have their first initial contacts,” McCoy said. “If they can’t then we get to the DAA level and if we can’t now we have this new tool. It was a law enacted in 2008 but was not really known around here from what I understand.”

A new tool that allows officers to put pet owners behind bars. Corey Balser, 22, of Lafayette is the first and only person in Tippecanoe County to face dog bite liability charges. Balser’s dogs were allegedly the ones involved in the two attacks mentioned earlier. One dog, named Chewy, was already under a Dangerous Animal Agreement for a previous attack and has since been euthanized.

“We were fortunate that the prosecutor’s office was on board with the case that was put together involving Chewy and Corey,” McCoy said. “Hopefully that sends a strong message. I do want people to know that they will be held responsible in the realm of the city ordinances hitting their pocketbook first and then they can be criminally liable as well and spend some time in jail.”

McCoy said a random dog attack in the city of Lafayette is very rare. More often than not dogs bite someone in their own household.

For more information on the dog bite liability law click here.

To learn more about breed specific legislation click here.

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