Fines unleashed: Albemarle criminalizes owners of roaming dogs
Albemarle holds its rural character dear, but anyone thinking about unleashing a bounding hound or letting Rover live up to his name may want to rethink the wisdom of such now-illegal actions. In June, the county started issuing criminal charges to the owners of dogs running loose off their property.
The county's residential areas already had a leash law, but in April the Board of Supervisors heard from elderly people allegedly terrorized by unruly curs when heading out to get the mail and from citizens who said they had to carry a big stick just to venture out the door. The Supervisors voted 5-1 to make this a class four misdemeanor in the rural areas, and a violation can bring a fine up to $250.
Supervisor Ann Mallek says she received "numerous" calls in the past year– she estimates around 30– from people claiming intimidation from free-range dogs and who found calling Animal Control offered little remedy.
"Elderly people can't get their mail because two 80-pound dogs can knock them down," says Mallek. "We don't want to wait until someone is killed."
The new ordinance took effect June 1. By the end of the following month, the county issued 16 summonses for dogs running at large, according to Albemarle police Sergeant Darrell Byers.
For the fiscal year ending June 30, Albemarle police logged 358 incidents of dogs running at large and 113 dog bites– although Byers cautions that many of the bites came from pets chomping on their owners.
Dogs engaged in hunting are exempt. Byers also points out that while it's popularly described as a leash law, dogs may still roam untethered when under their owner's voice control.
"It's when they go on the property of others," says Byers, who notes that citizens don't have to haul off the dogs themselves, but instead can call Animal Control officers, which will take errant canines to the SPCA. And any citizen who witnesses a roaming dog can also go to a magistrate and swear out a summons.
In late July, a pet Jack Russell terrier absconded from the electric-fenced yard of Bloomfield Road resident Charles Almy. Someone down the street reported it, and when Almy went to the SPCA to bail out Cheerio, he found himself with a summons.
Almy says he'd like to think a neighbor would give him a call if the dog got loose, but he confesses his phone number wasn't on the dog's collar. It is now.
"It prompted me to make sure the county license for each dog and the rabies shots for each dog were up to date," he adds.
While Almy lives on nine acres, he acknowledges that the county has grown to become less rural.
"It's a sign of the times– more people live in the county, and we've got to deal with each other," says Almy.
"I don't think the rural areas need a leash law," says Supervisor Rodney Thomas, who cast the only vote against the new ordinance, which he considers an unnecessary burden on citizens and officials– including the county's four Animal Control officers. "The majority of emails I got were against it."
Eastern Albemarle resident Janet Martin grounds her ordinance abhorrence in the land. She says dogs play a key role in rural life by protecting farm owners and controlling such agricultural pests as groundhogs, skunks, and deer.
"If a dog can't run on a farm," says Martin, "why have them?"
A former resident of New York City (who pities the plight of apartment-bound pooches), Martin says most of her Keswick-area neighbors have been understanding about any straying by her four German shorthaired pointers and one foxhound. But one relative newcomer has complained, so she's had to make adjustments.
"That's not in the spirit of the country," says Martin.
Supervisor Mallek, however, says she's gotten thanks from some of the formerly fearful citizens now strolling safely in the rural area and comforted by the idea they can pick up a phone to report neighbors who previously wouldn't control their dogs.
"They said it's so great they could call," says Mallek, adding that all enforcement is limited to following up complaints. "We are not dispatching the dog Gestapo."
Updated with hunting exemption.