The Watertown, Wisconsin Common Council narrowly passed a first reading of an ordinance that would impose restrictions on owners of pit bull breeds and “other dogs deemed vicious by the city” at their meeting on Tuesday night. The vote was 5 to 4, with council members Fred Smith, Mark Kuehl, Steve Zgnoc, Augie Tietz and Robert Stocks voting for the changes, and Emily McFarland, Ken Berg, John Coughlin and Jim Romlein voting against it.
The proposal defines “pit bull breeds”as American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, or any dog displaying a majority of physical traits of one or more of those breeds. In addition to restrictions on ownership of these dogs, the proposal would ban pit bulls and dogs deemed vicious from multifamily buildings in the city, with the exception of duplexes and privately owned condos, and also bans any household that owns a pit bull or a dog deemed vicious from owning more than two dogs. Those in violation would be required to move or give up at least one of the animals.
Ownership restrictions would include keeping dogs in kennels or fenced in when outdoors, warning signs placed on homes, mandatory spay/neuter after reaching the age of 5 months, proof of liability insurance of at least $100,000, and a registration fee.
Forty-seven individuals addressed the council at Tuesday’s meeting, and the majority of the heated debate revolved around the breed specific language of the ordinance. The Safety and Welfare Committee has been working on the ordinance for almost a year, and during that time, they have consistently heard from dog owners and residents that the restrictions need to be placed on dogs that have shown aggressive behavior, not on dogs because of their breed.
However, Fred Smith, the Safety and Welfare Committee Chairman, insists the breed specific changes are necessary because “the process of breeding seeks to accentuate specific characteristics over time…and pit bulls were bred for aggressiveness, tenacity, to fight and to kill…those characteristics are in their DNA.” He went on to argue that you cannot overcome breeding with training, despite the fact that animal experts have opined that outdated theory is patently false.
All the council members who voted against the ordinance repeatedly suggested it be taken back Committee for further work because the council’s intent should be to make owner’s responsible for their dogs, not target specific breeds.
Among those who addressed the council was Walworth resident, Jeffrey Borchardt, who relayed that his 14-month-old son was killed by two pit bulls in Walworth County earlier this year. He advised that he supported the ordinance, and had it been in place in Walworth, he son would be alive today.
Sean Van Derel, a member of the board of directors for the Watertown Humane Society, urged the council not to pass the legislation. He acknowledged the council heard sad stories, and that while the city is right to focus on public safety, he urged the members to take a look at the larger picture and not pass an ordinance based on emotion. He also advised the council that much of the information presented was simply false and geared to generate fear of certain breeds.
Councilwoman Emily McFarland advised it was troublesome to her that much of the vicious dog discussion is based on a report generated by the police last year which indicated there was on average 39 dog bites per year over the time studied in the report. She expressed concern over the amount of time and money already spent on something that occurs 2% of the time in the city. She also took issue with the fact that dogs were being judged vicious by their appearance only, which would make enforcement of the ordinance by the police extremely subjective. As we know, this opens a city to liability in the event a dog is misidentified as a “pit bull” by a city official. In addition, she said the council needed to look at the effect passing the ordinance could have on the city’s economic development, including the possibility of landlords losing tenants and business owners moving out the city.
Finally, Councilwoman McFarland felt it was her duty to represent the voice of the people in the first district, and her constituents are “overwhelming against” the proposal.
I would encourage you to read the entire article in the Watertown Daily Times for additional comments from council members and residents at the meeting.
The council will vote on the ordinance changes for a second time at its next meeting on September 3. According to the article in the Daily Times, the council was asked to submit suggestions to the city attorney, and the Safety Committee would meet again before the next council meeting to examine any recommendations. However, I spoke to the city clerk this afternoon who advised that as of today, no Safety Committee meeting is scheduled, so residents need to check in with the city during the next two weeks in the event a committee meeting is scheduled.
In the meantime, please continue to reach out to the Watertown officials with your polite, respectful and informative opposition to breed specific legislation. The first vote was extremely close, and fact-based information, as opposed to hype-based, can very well encourage a council member to change his or her vote. Let them know that community safety is extremely important to us all, and encourage them to move forward with a breed neutral ordinance that will truly work to keep the community safe rather than give residents a false sense of security. Please also include viable suggestions and alternate breed-neutral ordinances for their consideration. We suggest using the NAIA’s Guide to Constructing Successful Pet Friendly Ordinances. Encourage the Watertown officials to pass a law that focus on reckless and irresponsible dog owners which will result in a safer environment for the entire community – people and animals alike.
You can find talking points for your letters here.
Mayor John David
Darnell Hendricks, City Clerk
106 Jones Street
P.O. Box 477
Watertown, WI. 53094
Watertown Common Council
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**Please note that Mr. Kuehl, the council president, doesn’t make his e-mail address available. As such, please direct correspondence to him via the city clerk with a polite request to forward to him.
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