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Rural, barking dogs may get shorter leash

La Plata County exploring dog-nuisance, animal-cruelty regulations

When La Plata County residents outside municipal boundaries call in a dog-barking complaint, they get the same response: There’s nothing we can do.

About 25 Humane Society officials, residents and county commissioners met Tuesday afternoon to discuss the county’s lack of regulations when it comes to handling nuisance barking as well as animal cruelty – and the potential $200,000 cost to address it.

Most people who attended were primarily concerned with remedying barking issues.

Last year, there were 321 reported barking complaints in the city. The La Plata County Humane Society issued only two citations. Warnings are fairly effective, animal-protection officials said.

“The success rate is fifty-fifty depending on who you give them to and how much they care,” Supervisor of Animal Protection Travis Woehrel said. “A fine is enough to scare some, while others think it’s easier to pay rather than go the long road to keep a dog from barking. We issue very few citations because neighbors don’t want to be involved. They don’t want to hear it, but they also don’t want to show up in court.”

But the real problem is that La Plata County has no code to enforce, and that sometimes leads to false reports of animal cruelty.

“Dispatch knows there’s no law being broken,” Woehrel said. “If the people are adamant about it, dispatch calls us. We say we’re sorry, but there is no probable cause for us to go to the address if no crime is being committed. Some of those complaints then turn into, ‘Well, I don’t think the dog has food or water.’”

Woehrel estimated three to five cases turn into a cruelty complaint per week.

In some cases, residents also lack homeowners associations to put in place rules for dog owners.

“The main problem is when owners leave them outside when they leave for work, run errands, go on vacation or go away for the weekends, out-of-sight, out-of-mind,” Forest Lakes resident Sally MacDowell complained in an open letter. “Calling the sheriff’s office does no good. ‘We do not respond to barking dogs,’ is the rote refrain in Forest Lakes, and there is no homeowners association to put pressure on or fine barking-dog owners. All windows must be kept closed in order to hear your own TV or to sleep at night.”

La Plata County Sheriff’s Office contracts an officer to work a daily shift. If Animal Protection wanted to double its officers and add equipment, the county could be looking at a figure in the ballpark of $200,000, Animal Protection Director Chris Nelson said.

Nelson was most concerned with measures to prevent animal cruelty.

“People expect the Humane Society and Animal Protection to be looking out for them,” Nelson said. “These guys need the tools necessary to prosecute.”

The district attorney could hire a special prosecutor to handle animal cases, but Assistant District Attorney Christian Champagne says the solution is simple.

“There is already a system where officers prosecute their own cases,” he said. “The animal-cruelty portion of regulation probably wouldn’t add much to the case load, but barking dogs would. Have the officers come to court and simply deliver the facts, and the judge will decide.”

But expanding Humane Society resources could come with sacrifices in other areas of the budget. The county had a preliminary conversation on the topic in early summer, but the Gold King Mine spill on Aug. 5 became a distraction, officials said. Commissioner Julie Westendorff said the commission doesn’t intend to prolong the process any more than necessary.

“Can I envision something happening by the end of the year? Maybe not. We’re getting ready to get into budget discussions,” she said. “But I do not expect this to be a two-year thing.”

jpace@durangoherald.com

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