City law aims to lower RUFF count of dog attacks
By Melena DiNenna
On June 8, Hyattsville resident Camille Edwards Bennehoff was walking with her husband, Yohannes, and her sheep dog, Ziggy. Turning a corner, they were alarmed to see a loose dog approaching.
“The dog just didn’t even look at us [but] went straight for Ziggy,” she said.
In those few seconds, her husband scooped up Ziggy, who weighs 37 pounds, as the loose dog closed in, its teeth bared.
“It was almost like slow motion,” said Bennehoff. “I thought he actually bit my dog.”
The dog got a hold of Ziggy’s long hair and yanked hard, but didn’t break skin, though Ziggy did end up with bruises, she said. If Ziggy hadn’t been small enough for her husband to pick up quickly, he might have been more seriously injured.
Bennehoff had heard about dog safety issues in the city even before this scare. Indeed, two years prior, a group of Hyattsville residents who were concerned about loose animals started attending monthly police and public safety committee meetings.
After years of research and advocacy, the work of Hyattsville’s Residents United for Furry Friends (RUFF) paid off. On Oct. 4, the Hyattsville City Council approved the drafting of an Animal Welfare and Community Safety Act that would amend the city code to address animal safety, related code enforcement and public awareness of these issues.
The amendment, which will mirror existing county animal welfare law, prohibits tethering an animal for over an hour, total, in any given day. It will also prohibit leaving a pet unaccompanied outside for more than 15 minutes in severe weather conditions — below 30 degrees F or above 90 degrees F.
RUFF members have seen the effects of poor treatment of dogs. After negative encounters with a few, Camille Bennehoff and Adrianne Powell now carry dog deterrent spray when going for walks. Jeanne Benas would walk around with a long stick, and so did her neighbors, she said.
Powell said that she started using an indoor gym instead of going for walks outside for exercise, despite the risk of COVID-19, because she felt it was the safer option.
“It’s just really a shame,” Powell said. “It’s a pandemic, so it’s kind of a challenge when the only respite you have in some cases is to go outdoors.”
The approved council motion anticipates a new part-time non-police animal control liaison for the city. In council discussion, City Administrator Tracey Douglas clarified that she would try to find existing staff who could help the city comply with the new city code before staffing a new position.
RUFF members are also concerned about insufficient community awareness about how to file an animal complaint. RUFF member Mary Sue Twohy noted that the procedure for reporting a dog bite, for example, is confusing and difficult.
“You’ve got the county to call, you’ve got the police to call, and you’ve got to go to the vet [and sometimes] the hospital. So there’s four things right there. … How do you manage the trauma of all of this?” she said. “So a lot of people get so overwhelmed and may not even make any report.”
Councilmembers agreed that the legislation would help gather more accurate city-level data on animal control problems.
The animal control liaison will coordinate with the Prince George’s County Animal Services Division and city staff to collect data. The liaison will also be a point of contact for reporting and information, said Councilmember Danny Schaible (Ward 2), a sponsor of the act.
“[They’re] a responsible party, an accountable party that could answer the phone … that could make a home visit,” he said. “Someone that could provide testimony to an adjudication hearing for determining if an animal’s dangerous or not.”
Other responsibilities for the liaison will include promoting community awareness about animal care and safety through outreach and events.
Some community members, however, expressed concerns about the proposal’s potential effectiveness. Stuart Eisenberg, director of the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation, said in the Oct. 4 council meeting that the amendment resembles past attempts to employ a dog catcher that “rarely, if ever, resulted in anything.”
“I’ve been the victim of dog attacks in this community, as well,” he said. “I don’t believe I’ll be any safer with my dog with this ordinance operating in this year or five years from now.”
Residents organized RUFF four years ago, and initially advocated for the reinstatement of the position of animal control officer, a position that the city discontinued in the early 1990s.
Some councilmembers, including Rommel Sandino (Ward 5) and Joanne Waszczak (Ward 1), voiced concerns about the risk of over-policing.
At the suggestion of Councilmember Daniel Peabody (Ward 4), the city will conduct a one-year evaluation to assess the progress made after enacting the legislation.
Much of the work that went into this amendment, Schaible said, is thanks to the hard work of RUFF members.