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Pet owners crowd into hearing

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Kenneth Fraley asks city councilors about the idea that if an owner had "too many" pets, he or she would be classified as a "kennel" and possibly have to obtain a business license. Seated beside him at Monday's public hearing on animal control are Animal Control Officers Josh Greer, with the beard, ball cap, and folded arms, and Stephanie Cox. Photo by John Butwell
Public Safety Director Mike Justice describes instances of animal abuse he has witnessed, especially including cases of hoarding in which city residents, with good intentions including the idea of rescuing animals, bring home too many of them and then can't take care of them. Behind Justice are Ward 5 Councilor Tick Bryan, Mayor Craighead, and Ward 4 Councilor Bernie Ash; Ward 2 Councilor Fred Burton was seated beside Bryan, and Ward 6 Councilor Kathy Warmath had not yet arrived. Photo by John Butwell
Lebanon Mayor Philip Craighead opens Monday evening's hearing on animal control issues in the city before a packed city council chamber. About 85 people attended the hearing to express concern about reports they had heard that the city is considering a pet tax or limiting the number of pets a person can own, but Craighead said he doesn't think city councilors want to take either of those steps. Photo by John Butwell

Mayor: No tax proposed, no vote taken

No pet tax has been proposed and no vote has been taken on any animal issues, Lebanon Mayor Philip Craighead informed a large crowd of pet owners at Monday evening's public hearing to discuss those issues.

"We have issues with animal control, but no decisions have been made," Craighead told the crowd of about 85 people. But he said he could see advantages in putting an identifying chip under dogs' skin.

"If we chip animals, we can keep track of them," he continued. "If, as happened in Nashville last week, dogs bite a little girl, we can find the owner and see if the animals had rabies shots. If an animal gets killed by a car, we can notify the owner. If your dog, like mine, is a runner - when it runs again, we can find the owner."

But the mayor added that at this time, all the city really wants is to know what the public thinks about the city's animal issues. He again emphasized that no decisions have been made.

Public Safety Director Mike Justice agreed. "Nothing has been voted on yet," he said.

'Pet hoarding' is an issue

But Justice also pointed out that the idea behind chipping is to get pets back to their owners - then he said he is much more concerned about solving problems involving public safety and animal abuse, especially the "hoarding" of animals.

Justice said he had been on a call that involved animals tied on very short tethers and with no shelter, food or water.

"After I saw it first-hand how animals are tethered and not sheltered, I can't change my mind about what needs to be done," he said.

The city also needs to inoculate animals when it takes them in, Justice commented, so at least illnesses won't be spread to other animals.

He also said limits need to be set on how many dogs are too many for one home. "We have homes with 20, 30, 40 dogs in them," he said. "There needs to be some limit."

Justice added, "We're having an increased problem with people that are hoarding animals. Sometimes they have the best intentions, picking up strays or animals they find out in the public. They take them back to their residence and become overwhelmed."

'Don't penalize good owners'

Pet owners in the crowd agreed in general with the need to protect abused or neglected pets, but said the possible fees for licensing their dogs amounted to penalizing them for other people's wrongdoing.

Jim Dunn said he takes good care of his animals in part because his dogs travel with him. "I have Yorkies," he said. "They are all up-to-date at the vet with their shots and all. I had the vet chip them."

He wanted to know how the city's chipping system would work with dogs like his. Justice assured him the city's computer system uses a universal scanner and would read his dogs' chips, too.

Justice added that the initial reason the city bought the software was to allow its Animal Control Division to keep records of all animals they deal with.

Dunn added that he thinks any penalty "needs to be for those people who mistreat or desert animals."

Kenneth Fraley also asked about the idea that if an owner had "too many" pets, he or she would be classified as a "kennel" and possibly have to obtain a business license.

Ash opposes any pet tax

At that point, Ward 4 Councilor Bernie Ash announced he opposes any form of pet tax. "We have two groups here," he said. "The responsible pet owners have already taken care of these things. Their pets have their shots and chips and are well taken care of. Then we have irresponsible pet owners who don't do that."

Then, directly addressing the audience, Ash added, "You don't need to pay for the irresponsible pet owners."

The audience cheered.

Craighead told the group that he had talked to the councilors and didn't think the council would support any fees. "The city doesn't want this. But we will go after the abusers, and if we need to make more regulations, we'll do that," he promised.

'Teeth needed in law'

The mayor also said the city is trying to go a little beyond the existing state laws and give Animal Control "some teeth" to control bad situations.

Referring to proposals to strengthen the city's animal control ordinance, front-row participant Nikki Brown commented after the meeting, "We're for it, absolutely," although she did not address the city council.

"I think we're all for what's best for animal welfare," Pam Black agreed.

"It doesn't have to be this," Brown said, apparently referring to taxing pets or fining pet abusers, "but something has to happen. Money has to come from somewhere."

'Dog surrounded by flooding'

Ward 6 Councilor Kathy Warmath described an animal she had seen during recent rainstorms that was standing on the roof of its doghouse, which was surrounded by rising water. "He couldn't get down or he'd drown," she said.

Warmath reported the situation, but was unsure what the law allowed Justice and his staff to do for the animal.

Justice said if the dog was in danger, he could take it, but the owner could reclaim it.

Both Warmath and Ward 5 Councilor Tick Bryan pointed out that the information gathered by Justice about what other cities are doing about animal control contains some things of value, but neither councilor favored setting fees at this time.

Warmath also pointed out that recent misinformation claiming violations would be punished by a $250 fine is simply wrong. "The city is limited to a maximum of $50 for any violation," she said.

Several of those present suggested that a committee be formed of animal owners, veterinarians and others with some expertise to decide what the city could do about the problems. Some also said they would be willing to help pay for a dog park where they could safely walk their animals.

Pet park 'in the works'

Resident Larry Hubbard said a dog park is, in fact, in the works and that he would also be willing to pay a fee for his dogs to support that.

Craighead said the city has been in contact with Nutro Dog Food Co. on Arctic Drive, and they were interested in working with the city to create a pet park.

Although the council hasn't yet made any decisions, Craighead said they did appreciate the input and would consider it when deciding what to do.

Writer Connie Esh may be contacted at

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Animal Control, Lebanon, pets, Philip Craighead, public hearing, public safety, taxes, Wilson County
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