Sunday, May 3, 2009

Gwinnett Animal Advisory Council – Making Policies Founded on Fear?

The Gwinnett Animal Advisory Council (GAAC) met on Tuesday, April 21, to consider proposed changes to the county’s animal ordinance. A spirited discussion, shrouded in contemptuous overtones that pervaded for two plus hours, focused on nuisance dog barking and tethering restrictions. From this writer’s perspective, representing "We, the Pet Owners of Gwinnett" a grassroots group of concerned pet owners, the feeling tone set by GAAC is reflective of a common malady: fear of change.

Nonetheless, considerable progress was made in that GAAC and We, the Pet Owners of Gwinnett each made compromises in revising nuisance dog barking and tethering guidelines. As a result, a modified animal ordinance was crafted, to be submitted to the Gwinnett County Commission for their recommendations and approval. GAAC member Carla Brown worked diligently to resolve contentious issues and deserves the community’s thanks for her efforts

Although the proposal presented by We the Pet Owners of Gwinnett wasn't adopted in its entirety, consensus was reached regarding several key provisions within the proposed revised ordinance. Changes included in the new ordinance are listed below under the subject categories.

Nuisance Dog Barking

Sentencing guidelines no longer include jail and/or probation.

Pets of an owner cited with a barking violation will not be removed from the home.
An owner can be cited just once (per incident) for a barking violation, rather than multiple times based on the number of dogs he or she owns, as is currently enforced.

The new ordinance requires two complainants from individuals who live at addresses close to the disturbance (rather then one as in the current law). This complaint expires after thirty days meaning the process would have to start all over.

Removed was the language that excluded barking when vocalizations are given as a warning to the "presence of a person trespassing on the property were the animal(s) are present. This section alone would be a deal breaker in any new ordinance, the county will go back to the current language that vocalizations do not apply "as a warning to the presence of an intruder".

The new law will incorporate a mediation process in resolving conflicts.

However, AAC Chair Gail Laberge refused a change that would reduce the maximum fine from it's current "up to $1,000" level to a more realistic fine of "up to $100". While Laberge never said the fine was a "reasonable" amount one can assume her refusal to put limitations in place demonstrates her opinion excessive fines are not unreasonable.

Laberge, who represents the Lawrenceville Kennel Club, went on to claim that the wording says the judge MAY give a fine not to exceed $1,000 but allows the judge to give a fine from $0.00 to $1,000. Of course, putting reasonable restraints on the court process that would lower that range to $0.00 to $100 and still allow the same discretion.

Laberge has a disconnect with the court process. After all, it was under her leadership that the current draconian ordinance was passed in 2007. Judge's are not required to levy fines for convictions under Recorders Court rules.

The problem with allowing excessive fines for minor offenses is in how those guidelines are used to intimidate pet owners into relinquishing their pets without even going through the court system. The issue of maximum sentencing is being abused by the county solicitor's office during what should be "good faith" plea negotiations.

Further, animal control is able to use the threats of "potential" sentencing limits to convince pet owners who are not even charged with a crime to surrender their pets in lieu of being cited. Animals who are surrendered thus become part of a much larger issue of escalating intake and kill numbers at the county shelter.

"We the Pet Owners of Gwinnett" will continue to lobby for fines that fit the offense. There is no reasonable explanation for excessive fines that punish responsible pet owners in the process. Pets are part of our culture and deserve to be treated as such.

Tethering Guidelines

Slight modifications were made to the total ban on tethering and approved which will allow for short term tethering when the pet owner is present. Once those changes are finalized I will "blog" them for public discussion.

Progress made thus far in hammering out an animal ordinance satisfactory to Gwinnett County government officials, pet owners, animal control employees and GCAA represents the culmination of nine months of intensive efforts. While it is encouraging, progress far beyond “putting a good animal control ordinance in place” begs for attention.

Legislation is often thought of as a quick solution to high rates of shelter killing. For those "animal advocating" attorneys who write these laws and claim to be motivated by saving lives, there is a more powerful driving force in play: a desire to punish. Ultimately, it is the animals they claim to want to save who are punished by losing their lives in the process.

Experience paints a different picture of saving more lives - communities like Gwinnett that have passed such draconian laws instead find themselves moving in the opposite direction. Shelter intake rises which translates into more killing, not less. More killing translates into additional animal control funding needed and the process spirals.

We will never lower our shelter intakes and kill numbers without enhancing proven life-saving strategies instead. If we are ever going to realize change we must stop ignoring the excuses of blame that lead to shelter failure. Every dog and cat killed is a shelter failure.

You can't eliminate public irresponsibility but you can stop using it as an excuse to kill. There is more then enough compassion, caring, kindness and love for our pets in Gwinnett to overcome the much smaller amount of human irresponsibility. What is needed is a shift in thinking that moves away from excuses to solutions instead.

Additional discussions during the Animal Advisory Meeting addressed:

Volunteer Program

The current "volunteer" program is non functional. The failure to implement a volunteer spirit in the community, a failure to organize a working foster care program, a failure to increase exposure for pets needing homes through off-site adoption events, a failure to implement "trap,neuter release" policies for feral cats, a failure to maintain a customer friendly shelter environment, a failure to offer affordable services that nurture responsible pet ownership in the community all feed into a failing animal welfare policies of killing more at our shelter.

Instead our current volunteer program requires a thorough criminal background check thus stifling most citizens from the program. Even this program is closely guarded as there are no links on the county web site that would advise volunteers on how they can participate.

The Animal Advisory meeting included a discussion about the application and background check process that quite probably is discouraging community volunteer participation. Until we get over a philosophy of running the public animal shelter like a prison that problem will persist.

Thus, we have a dismal number of less then twenty volunteers who currently participate.

Clearly, that is not enough participation to make a noticeable difference in helping to advance "these" pets chances of being adopted back into the community.

Life saving programs that need volunteers include:

Help with off site and special adoption events.
Fostering dogs and cats thus expanding the number of pets being made available for adoption.
Educational programs in the community that promote the shelter and responsible pet ownership.
Pet councilors that offer resources that help pet owners avoid relinquishing their pets.
Maintaining the shelter's "Petfinders" listing to vastly improve a pets chances at being adopted or being transferred to rescue.

Without unpaid volunteers programs like off site adoption, special adoption events at the shelter and many of the other services that volunteers can offer in helping to keep the public informed about pets needing help go unresolved.

Partnerships with the Rescue Community

A significant issue that needs to be addressed is the dramatic drop in dogs and cats being transferred to area rescue groups in 2008. That number dropped a staggering 35% in one year alone.

Shelter Director Mary Respress commented that many of the rescue groups the shelter approaches are not taking in animals because they are full. The sad reality is many long time very responsible rescue groups do not pull from Gwinnett because they feel like they are not treated as partners in the shelters success.

Hopefully, putting an end to the repressive enforcement of the county's animal ordinance might help reduce that tension but it is also imperative that the shelter realize there are serious issues that need to be addressed in order for rescue to openly embrace pulling from Gwinnett.

Rescue groups or foster homes who reside in Gwinnett will not risk the judgmental thinking that could endanger their personal pets and current fosters when there are pets available in nearby shelters who are not so intrusive. That is not an opinion - it is a reality.

Building and expanding a partnership coalition with the rescue community is imperative in moving towards finding rescue solutions for many of the dogs and cats who are left with no other options..

Revamping the Animal Advisory Council

The current structure of GAAC is, in my opinion, dysfunctional and primarily serves the special interest that blocks change. This structure is heavily weighted in support of local breeder and kennel club interest who compete in the marketplace with shelter pets.

GAAC Chair Laberge, who represents the AKC, countered with "I do not believe the GAAC is dysfunctional nor do I believe it blocks change. The GAAC tries very hard to look at all issues brought to the GAAC and recommend what is best for the community and the animals."

Yet, Laberge is hard pressed in explaining her support of the 2007 Animal Ordinance Revisions that allowed the county to jail pet owners and take away their family pets for minor ordinance infractions. She hard pressed in explaining the lack of a volunteer program, she's hard pressed in explaining the shelter's policy of "trap and kill" for ferals which resulted in a huge increase in the number of cats being killed.

Clearly, the best interests of the community and the animals were not served with those sentencing guidelines - nor are the best interests of the taxpayers who foot the bill for all of this excessive killing.

Laberge tried to clarify her comments with "There are seven members of the GAAC and we don't always agree. I have only one vote and sometimes I am in the minority on a decision, an example was the regulation to ban all tethering. I stated at the time that I thought that was a mistake and it has proven true, but the Council voted and the majority of members at that time wanted to ban all tethering."

In reality, there were no dissenting votes in approving this flawed bill which now has been corrected. If Laberge lacks the backbone to vote her conscience then she should not be in a leadership position.

A true paradigm shift is called for in that we must get past the mind set that “killing the excess is what we have to do.” We must find the ways and means to improve current programs and implement additional programs that we know save lives.

WE MUST get past this current thinking of justifying the excuses for killing a pet and push on to ways and methods for saving lives. The history and voting record of this GAAC, many of whom are long time members, will not be resolved without changes in the makeup and will of the council. We the Pet Owners of Gwinnett support a proposal that would have added in local pet owners from each commissioner's district.

GAAC Chairperson Laberge has removed this proposal from the GAAC agenda. There have been no discussions or an up or down vote that addresses changing the makeup of the board to be more inclusive for local pet owners.

In her explanation she explains "just because the topic of the GAAC was not on the April agenda does not mean the topic has been removed for future meetings. But I will remind you that in the end, the Commissioners decide the makeup of the GAAC. The Gwinnett Animal Advisory Council (GAAC) does not have the authority to expand the size of the GAAC. Enlarging the membership of the GAAC can only be done by the Gwinnett County Commissioners and the Commissioners are the only ones who can do the by-laws for the GAAC."

That does not explain her efforts to halt discussions on this proposal. The GAAC does have a responsibility to discuss, vote on and send forward any proposals for board considerations. She is correct, however, in the end it will be up the BOC who answer to the voters to determine whether our animal advisory council includes voices from the pet owning community or continues to disenfranchise them instead.

With the next meeting scheduled for July 21st, we will once again face the sad reality that "the business of killing our community's pets" is our animal welfare policy for the balance of 2009. This is clearly not acceptable to those demanding change.

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