During last year’s USA Pro Challenge, terror momentarily struck an elderly beagle named Heidi.
Near the intersection of Highway 9 and Carroll Road, groups and families had gathered to cheer on the approaching crowd of cyclists. During the excitement, a pair of large dogs attacked 15-year-old Heidi.
A local deputy quickly reacted, shooting and killing one of the attacking dogs. Heidi escaped alive, but her life-threatening injuries required thousands of dollars in vet bills.
Even though it happened outside the jurisdiction of Breckenridge, just south of town, it prompted city officials to look at retooling the animal ordinance.
After a year in the making, on Tuesday night, Breckenridge Town Council unanimously approved a first reading of the new ordinance.
“We did a bunch of research on other ordinances in the county and state, and we came up with a list of changes and brought it back to you,” Police Chief Shannon Haynes told the council. “The previous ordinance needed a lot of cleaning up … this one gives us a lot more teeth.”
The main change to the ordinance is an increased fine schedule for violators. The fines also increase for habitual offenders, defined as pet owners with multiple offenses within a 24-month period.
Under the old ordinance, the owner of a dog that bit someone faced a first-conviction fine as low as $10.
“The old ordinance was very outdated, and our fines for animal violations were really low,” Haynes said. “This gives more structure, and clearer definitions of violations for our officers to look for when they arrive on scene.”
The old ordinance just referred to a “vicious animal” only as a hazard. That term has been better defined and changed to “dangerous animal.” Council also added “potentially dangerous animal” to the list of legal definitions.
“Any animal that has inflicted bodily injury or serious bodily injury upon or has caused the death of a person or animal” is defined as a dangerous animal in the new ordinance.
A potentially dangerous animal is one that has caused a laceration or bruising on another animal or person, chases someone in a “menacing fashion” on property that is not the pet owner’s, is a poisonous animal (such as a centipede) and/or an animal displaying “physical characteristics or demonstrated tendencies that would cause a reasonable person to conclude that the animal is likely to inflict injury or cause death …”
Councilman Ben Brewer questioned whether the potentially dangerous animal determination could be abused.
“I see potential for people to use this to target a dog or owner they don’t like,” Brewer said.
Someone who is particularly fearful of dogs could interpret just a subtle teeth baring as a possible attack.
Haynes assured that her officers would assess each call on its merits, and it’s ultimately up to the municipal judge to rule on each case.
Under the new law, a first offense involving a dangerous or potentially dangerous animal will cost the owner a fine of at least a $200, assessed by the municipal judge. For repeat offenses the fine climbs to $400 and $600, respectively.
However, licensing fees remain very low in the new ordinance. One can get a license good for three years for only $15 for a sterilized dog, while an unsterilized is $60.
“We kept licenses in line with what the county does,” Haynes said. “We kept them low to encourage people to register to help build out database and to encourage people to sterilize their pets.”
Early in the process the town also gathered feedback from residents. While respondents wanted more done about irresponsible owners, dogs roaming off the leash and rogue waste, they didn’t want any specific breeds, such as pit bulls, targeted for banishment. The town incorporated those recommendations into the ordinance.
The town will also engage in an education campaign with local veterinarians and kennels to make them aware of the changes in the new ordinance.
“This was an impressive amount of work,” Councilwoman Wendy Wolfe said about the process going into drafting the new animal ordinance.
“There are a lot of really responsible pet owners in Breckenridge,” Haynes said. “But you always have a few who aren’t going to follow the law.”
And like Haynes said, the new ordinance gives her officers more teeth and direction when dealing with these situations.
If the council approves the second reading of the ordinance at the Aug. 26 regular meeting, the law will go into place 30 days later. The item will be up for public hearing also at the Aug. 26 meeting.