Council discusses Animal Welfare and Community Safety Act
At the Dec. 7 and Jan. 4 city council meetings, the city council members discussed the Animal Welfare and Community Safety Act, a proposed update to the section of city code that deals with animal control regulations. The act seeks to clarify definitions and terms regarding animal control, and increase reporting of animal control incidents.
“What we’ve tried to do is professionalize the [city’s] response [to animal control incidents] a little bit better and to make … these steps and the process … a little bit more thorough and with greater accountability,” said Councilmember Danny Schaible (Ward 2) in a phone interview.
At the Dec. 7 meeting, Schaible described the act as a collaboration with Residents United For Furry Friends (RUFF), a small group of animal lovers who have been threatened or attacked by animals. Schaible, who says he’s been working with RUFF for about a year, described the act as being the “result of several years’ work” and said that it is aimed at “modernizing and strengthening animal control regulations in Hyattsville,” which are governed by Chapter 52 of the city code.
While RUFF has advocated for the reinstatement of a city animal control officer in the past, this proposal does not call for the city to employ a specific animal control officer. “If this bill passes, the city will still rely on the county for most of its animal control services,” said Schaible, noting that the goal of the bill was not to expand the city’s responsibilities in responding to animal complaints, but to increase accountability and professionalism in services that are currently being provided.
Hyattsville City Police Department (HCPD) Acting Chief Scott Dunklee said that currently, if someone calls the police regarding a dangerous animal that may pose a threat to public safety, the HCPD generally calls the Prince George’s County Animal Services Division. “They’re really the experts,” he said. A complaint about a barking dog, though, would be handled like any other noise complaint.
During the discussion, some councilmembers expressed reservations that some of the language was vague or subjective and left too much to the discretion of the responding officer.
Councilmember Ben Simasek (Ward 3) also encouraged more specificity regarding the required burden of proof for certain issues, such as noise complaints. A number of residents weighed in via public comment to agree with these reservations, although three of the four residents supported the motion generally. The last comment opposed it on the grounds that it would be too costly, and might pit neighbor against neighbor.
On Jan. 7, councilmembers discussed the act further, including some updates and clarifications made in response to concerns raised at the previous meeting. The act covers a broad range of issues, including placing restrictions on long-term tethering (more than one hour, total, out of 24) and exposing animals to severe weather. It also categorizes violations as either a public nuisance, such as excessive barking or being off leash in public spaces, or a more severe public threat, such as engaging in unprovoked aggressive behaviors while off-leash, or actually attacking a person or animal.
The act also requires the City of Hyattsville to designate someone to respond to animal control incidents and maintain data on animal control incidents and report this data to the city council on an annual basis. It also requires the city to report any ‘public threat’ violations to the Prince George’s County Animal Services Division and make this data available to city residents . At the Dec. 7 meeting, Dunklee said that the police department currently receives about two animal-related complaints per week, and that this has been typical over the last several years.
Due to concerns raised at the Jan. 7 meeting that the extra reporting and citations might prove too burdensome for code compliance, leading to a need for additional staff, the council decided to refer the act to the Code Compliance Advisory Committee for further review.