Thursday, July 05, 2007

Big Brother is Watching (The Wrong Dog)

If you reside in the Commonwealth of Virginia, be advised--Big Brother is extending his watch beyond the usual range of monitored activities. Not satisfied with simply tracking the routine stuff: your driving record, tax compliance, payment of child support, etc., Virginia state government is now expanding its purview, creating a "Dangerous Dogs Registry," one of the first in the nation.

According to the Associated Press and WAVY-TV in Norfolk, the registry is in its early stages, so you won't find many dangerous pooches listed--at least, not yet. However, the database is patterned on those established for sex offenders, allowing residents to search for canine threats by location or zip code.

Already in the registry is a dog that bit a bicyclist and another that killed a Persian cat that wandered into the dog's back yard. Under Virginia's Dangerous Dog Law (passed by the General Assembly last year), the designation can be applied to any canine if it bites, attacks or causes any type of injury to a person or an animal, provided the dog is not protecting its owner. Police dogs are exempt from the new statute, according to the state's Chief Veterinarian, Dr. Richard Wilkes.

The Dangerous Dog Law and registry were largely inspired by the fatal 2005 mauling of a Spotsylvania county woman and her dog, who were killed by three pit bulls that belonged to a neighbor. The woman's family collected thousands of signatures on a petition demanding tougher penalties on dog owners whose pets cause serious injuries to others.

Under the new law, owners of dangerous dogs must enter them into the statewide registry; confine the animal to a fenced run or other, secure shelter; obtain at least $100,000 in liability insurance for their property, and place the dog on a leash or muzzle when taking the dog off their property.

In the interest of disclosure, I must report that the Spook family has owned a series of dogs over the past three decades, ranging in size from a Chihuahua to a Rottweiler. Our household currently includes three dogs and two cats, and we view pet ownership as a serious responsibility. All of our animals have been spayed or neutered; our dogs are restricted to a large, fenced-in yard, we obey all local leash laws and take great care in exposing to other animals or "new" people.

That's why we view the new law as another example of bureaucratic excess. Obviously, no one wants vicious dogs terrorizing a neighborhood, attacking residents and killing small animals. But--as the AP/WAVY story fails to note--virtually all localities in Virginia already had measures in place for dealing with canine predators.

Under the old system, if a dog was running around loose, causing problems (or, God forbid, it actually bites someone), animal control would be summoned. The dog is then quarantined, and a judge decides its fate. More than a few dogs were euthanized under the old system; the owners could face fines for breaking local dog laws, and if the victims sought financial compensation, they could take their case to court. The system wasn't perfect--the legal process never is--but it seemed sufficient for "the problem" in Virginia.

We're also wondering if that new registry will deal with a much more serious problem that exists in some corners of the state--dog fighting. NFL Quarterback (and Virginia native) Michael Vick is currently the target of local, state and federal investigations after a number of fighting dogs (and evidence of dogfighting) were discovered at his home in rural Surry County, west of Norfolk.

Vick's property was raided by authorities in late April, but the local Commonwealth's attorney, Gerald Poindexter, indicates he won't bring evidence to a grand jury until next month at the earliest. Earlier this month, Mr. Poindexter told USA Today that he didn't have a "single investigation report" in the Vick case, which, at that point, had been underway for almost six weeks. Poindexter says he's being deliberate, after losing a similar case in 2000 due to an illegal search. Other authorities--and some animal advocacy groups--have accused the prosecutor and the local sheriff of dragging their feet.

Vick has since sold the property for a reported $350,000--roughly half its market value--and has refused comment on the case. But something was clearly going on at the estate in Surry County. Neighbors say that Vick has owned the property for six years and installed kennels long before the house was built. The April raid uncovered a number of items associated with dog fighting, including:

"...66 dogs in the backyard. A search warrant affidavit said some of the dogs were in individual kennels and about 30 were tethered with "heavy logging-type chains" buried in the ground.

The chains allowed the dogs to get close to each other, but not to have contact, one of myriad findings on the property that suggested a dogfighting operation.

Others included a rape stand, used to hold non-receptive dogs in place for mating; an electric treadmill modified for use by dogs; a "pry bar" to open the clamped-down mouths of dogs and a bloodied piece of carpeting authorities believe was used in dogfighting. Carpeting gives dogs traction in a plywood fighting pit.

Obviously, the Vick controversy erupted before the Virginia registry went into effect, but the on-going investigation raises questions about its potential effectiveness. As we understand it, the registry relies heavily on local officials to identify dangerous dogs and their owners, and enter them into the database. But apparently, no one in Surry County was concerned about the large number of pit bulls on Michael Vick's property, and the potential threat posed if only one of them escaped.

It's also worth noting that authorities first visited Vick's property in connection with a drug case involving his cousin, who lived at the home. The dog operation was discovered during the drug search, and there's no indication that local authorities had prior knowledge of its existence.

That's why the new "Dangerous Dog Registry" strikes us as a colossal waste of time, money and effort. In addition to the "new" software developed for the website (at a reported cost of $40,000), the state has also hired a new coordinator to run the program, and we're sure that his services don't come cheap, either. We can only imagine how many "dangerous dog bureaucrats" will be working for the Commonwealth five or 10 years down the road.

Thanks to their efforts, Virginia residents will be able to learn about the neighbor's Great Dane that nipped the mailman, or the local Chow-Chow that terrorized a cat. But in terms of identifying individuals and animals that pose a legitimate public threat--like the Vick operation in Surry County--we believe the database will prove totally inadequate. After all, dog fighters don't exactly publicize their sport, and in other cases, local authorities will (apparently) cast a blind eye to the questionable "hobbies" of local celebrities.


Anonymous said...

No sympathy here! I live in a dog-restricted area, and it's great. The drug dealers don't use their Staffordshires to bully people, the dog-shit has gone from the sidewalks, and small kids don't get bit in the face by Rottweilers any more. I can now walk in my neighborhood with the kids and not have to deal with dogs that rush out of yards. I like dogs, but I like them even more when they're not here! Actually, when I think about it, as much as I like them, dogs are a real pain in the ass.

Augurwell said...

Most dog aren't bad - some people are, I respect people who stage dog fights as my enemies.