New animal control law ends dog bans and county role

Tisbury's town pound is expected to benefit from changes in state law. — File photo by Janet Hefler

Martha’s Vineyard animal control officers and towns are reviewing their local animal licensing and control bylaws and ordinances in the wake of a state law that took effect on October 31. Among other provisions, Bill S. 2192, signed into law last August by Governor Deval Patrick, would prevent towns from banning problem dogs.

The long due overhaul of the state’s animal control law revises many provisions that dated back to the 1800’s. It includes a number of important changes to strengthen animal protection measures, regulate dangerous and nuisance dogs, and create some statewide oversight for animal control, according to a summary by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA).

Among the biggest changes, the law now requires training for animal control officers and it establishes a statewide Homeless Animal Prevention and Care Fund to pay to spay and neuter animals in shelters and municipal animal control facilities. Both will be funded through revenue from a voluntary tax check off on state income tax forms.

“Of course, there’s no money available yet, but in theory it will be great,” Lisa Hayes, manager of the nonprofit Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard, said. “We will be able to tap into that fund for the spaying and neutering of animals here. A lot of times animals don’t come to us spayed and neutered, and we don’t let them leave here until that’s done, and it’s a costly thing.” Ms. Hayes said she also was pleased that Cattrap, another Island nonprofit agency, would benefit from the state fund.

“They are angels that go out and trap feral cats and get them spayed and neutered before releasing them back into their colonies, with a small ear clip to indicate they’ve been treated, so they don’t keep compounding the problem of overpopulation,” Ms. Hayes said.

The MSPCA points out that while reducing the number of homeless animals is an animal welfare issue, it also will save cities and towns money in costs to house and take care of them. For example, the mandatory holding period for dogs at a shelter or animal control facility has been changed from 10 days to 7, a measure the city of New Bedford estimates would save its taxpayers $8,000 a year.

The new law also includes language that enables judges to include pets in temporary restraining orders issued in domestic violence cases. Oftentimes domestic abuse victims refuse to seek safety for themselves if it means leaving their pets in danger, according to the MSPCA. Seventeen other states have adopted similar laws.

No banning dangerous dogs

In regard to dog complaints, the new law includes specific definitions for dangerous and nuisance dogs, and a statewide framework for regulating them that overrides local regulations, according to a recap by the Massachusetts Municipal Association. The law spells out steps that local hearing authorities, which are usually the towns’ selectmen on Martha’s Vineyard, must take to address complaints, including an opportunity for appeals by the dog owner.

The new legislation states that a dog may not be deemed dangerous solely based on its growling and/or barking, its breed, or its reaction to another animal or person in certain circumstances.

Those include situations in which a dog is protecting or defending itself, its offspring or another domestic animal or a person from attack or assault; is being teased, tormented or battered; or attacks or threatens a person committing a crime upon the person or property of its owner or keeper.

For a dog deemed a nuisance, the local authority may order remedial action, such as restraint or a pen.

For a dog deemed dangerous, local authorities are instructed to order one or more of seven options, including restraint, confinement to its owner’s premises in a securely enclosed and locked pen with a roof, and insurance in an amount not less than $100,000. The last option is humane euthanasia.

“I think the biggest thing, to me, is the change in not being able to ban a dog,” Tisbury animal control officer Laurie Clements said in a phone conversation with The Times last week.

The new law prohibits a local authority from “banishing” any dog from the city or town, a practice which leads to one town’s problem animal becoming another’s. For example, in 2008, after the Tisbury selectmen banned a Siberian husky from the town for killing chickens on multiple occasions, the dog escaped from his temporary home in Oak Bluffs and killed chickens again.

“The cruelty law is hugely changed, too,” Ms. Clements said. “Also, the law about tying a dog up outside has been made very specific, defining what you can tie it with and how long it has to be, plus you have to have a dog house with a raised floor off the ground, which is good. The idea is, don’t get a dog and have it live outdoors all its life tied to a chain.”

From county to local control

Cities and towns are still authorized to adopt local bylaws and ordinances relative to the licensing and control of animals, provided they are in keeping with the state law.

Until around the 1970’s, local government did not place much emphasis on or provide resources for the care and control of domestic pets, unless the issue concerned rabies or damage to livestock by stray dogs, according to the MSPCA. The state’s animal control efforts were organized by county, with each county having an animal control officer or officers, and a county fund. This became obsolete with towns and cities opting out of the county system and making their own bylaws.

In the past, Dukes County treasurer Noreen Flanders explained, proceeds from the Island towns’ sale of dog licenses was pooled in a county-maintained fund. The money was spent as needed on emergency veterinary care for stray cats or dogs or to reimburse the owners of livestock that was injured or killed by stray animals.

Veterinarians could receive no more than $20 per treatment. At the end of the calendar year, what was left in the county fund was divided up and returned to the towns in proportion to the amount each put in the county fund. The money had to be used for public libraries or schools.

Under the new law, Island towns will collect and maintain their own funds from the sale of dog licenses, from which veterinarians will be paid for emergency care for stray animals. The fee they can collect has been increased to up to $250 per treatment.

“One reason the law was changed was because counties in the western part of state are no longer existent, so it made it fuzzy,” Ms. Flanders said. “This way, each municipality keeps it money and decides what to do with it, if there is any left after paying the higher veterinary fees. There is nothing in the new law that requires that money left over from the sale of dog licenses go back to libraries or the schools.”

Although the county no longer maintains a fund, Ms. Flanders said it remains involved in facilitating the bulk purchase of metal dog tags for the towns, which saves them money.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville) sponsored the state senate version of the animal control bill. A coalition of animal welfare advocates, including the MSPCA, the Animal Control Officers’ Association of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, Animal Rescue League of Boston, and the state’s Bureau of Animal Health, worked together to draft the changes included in the final bill.