Time to rethink rules on animal control


News that the state has revised its rules concerning animal control is welcome. The overhaul refreshes some laws that were written in the 19th Century, strengthens animal protection laws, clarifies municipal requirements for regulating animals that are dangerous or are nuisances, and adds some statewide authority for the uniform and disciplined local management of animal control issues.

The new law also requires training for animal control officers and establishes a fund to pay for spaying and neutering animals in shelters and town animal control facilities. As is their habit, state legislators have appropriated no dependable funding to back up these new requirements.

Still, this revision, S. 2192, is an advancement and it reflects the cultural shift taking place in communities across the Commonwealth. The combat underlying that shift is apparent in the sad story of Chi, the family dog in West Tisbury shot to death by a neighbor who kept chickens that the dog was chasing and killing, as the West Tisbury animal control officer describes it. Less rural, more suburban than it was 20 or 30 years ago, Massachusetts and Martha’s Vineyard are not sparsely populated agrarian communities anymore, and the rural commonplaces of years ago will be increasingly challenged. It’s a tide that will not be restrained.

As the state government has remade its rules governing animal control, taking special pains to protect the pets and fairly discipline the pet owners, in the interest of healthier neighborhood socialization, Island towns must revise their own policies to get in step with state leadership on these matters. Doing so, town leaders need to discipline themselves to see clearly the culture that prevails in their own communities, so that animal control rules and zoning bylaws conform themselves to the needs of that culture. Living in suburbia and imagining that it is Iowa will leave in place a confused, mismanaged, and heartbreaking apparatus for animal management.

Reflecting on the awful story of Chi for a moment, it is possible that rules on the housing, fencing, and otherwise confining of livestock in settings that are essentially residential in nature might have helped prevent this collision of informal agriculture and family pet management. Rules requiring formal animal training for pets kept in the vicinity of farmers who keep livestock might have helped as well.

Clear rules that everyone understands — including requirements for pet-owning residents and nearby small farmers — with defined, unambiguous penalties for violations will serve town officials and their constituents best.