OTTUMWA — The gallery inside council chambers was full of anticipation that breed-specific legislation of pit bull terriers might be removed from the City of Ottumwa’s animals ordinance.
What resulted was a tabled ordinance that will now go through an amendment process and be brought back to the city council at a future meeting.
No action was taken following a six-month process to review Chapter 7 of the code, which offered new definitions, enforcement procedures and owner regulations, particularly associated with dangerous animals, which is how the pit bull is defined.
Still, there was enough gray area in several sections that council member Cara Galloway wasn’t comfortable approving during the first reading.
“I understand this ban has been in place for a long time, but what happens if we lift it, and now we have all these animals that have not been socialized?” Galloway asked at the end of the meeting. “Or we have these expectations for people to have pit bulls, but then they’re not followed?
“These are all things we have to consider.”
Galloway was the only council member to offer any amendments, and there were enough of them that they couldn’t be easily added at the bench. She questioned the lack of a “sliding-fee” scale between first, second and third offenses, and was confused about language that said “a dog which has the appearance and characteristics of being an American Pit Bull terrier.”
A pit bull is not a breed per se, but several breeds of bulldogs and terriers are considered a “pit bull.” However, members of the Coalition to End Ottumwa’s Pit Bull Ban have issues with visual identification of a dog as a determining factor of whether a dog is a pit bull.
Council member Marc Roe said it would be more prudent to come back “clean, one time” with a revision after amendments are made, rather than continue the process and “waste the public’s time.”
“I don’t want to go through the hassle when we can just bring back a clean version that everybody might agree with or not agree with, whatever the case may be,” he said. “And then we can have public comments at that time.”
However, there appeared to be some agreement between coalition members, who first requested in November that the city lift the ban, and Galloway regarding aspects of potentially moving the animal to the new “high-risk” category, a downgrade from its current definition.
Defining the dog as high-risk would lift the ban, in exchange for owners following strict guidelines such as microchipping, spay and neuter, behavioral training and carrying liability insurance, while also outlining enforcement procedures.
“We want to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure the safety of our community, including anti-tethering laws, animal safety education, community outreach programs, promoting vet checks, dog licensing, dog training incentives, etc.,” he said Kathy Caldwell, the coalition’s primary spokesperson. “Let me assure you we look forward to a friendly working relationship with the council to make our community safe for everyone.”
Shannon Murphy, also a spokesperson for the coalition, said “ethical and fair treatment for all dogs” is the group’s main concern. Murphy, who has been bitten by a dog, said the coalition is eager to offer public education and fundraising to help dog owners meet regulations.
“I kind of find it offensive that any dog and domestic animal is listed in the same category under our code as cougars, lions and tigers. It’s just ludicrous,” she said. “And the whole city is looking at us. How can we move forward as a community if we’re constantly looking back to what happened a number of years ago?”
Certified dog trainer Melissa Childs noted that the ban on the dog is preventing it from getting the training it needs because the dogs are in hiding.
“(The ban) will prevent them from getting vaccines for diseases that can transmit to other dogs and humans. These are the things that are going to keep our community safe,” she said. “If you’ll give me the opportunity I will personally volunteer my time and work with city staff what I’ve learned working with thousands of dogs.
“I know we can do better than this.”
Not everyone wants to see the ban lifted. Keith and Inez Hill are landlords who have struggled to get insurance because of pit bulls on their properties.
“We’ve had trouble with insurance agents not wanting to insure our houses because of animals that are dangerous,” Inez Hill said. “If the agent does agree to cover, then it has to be at a higher premium, and it’s too high to pay.”
“I’ve had two pit bulls come up on me and try to attack me. The law (enforcement) came and got one of them and gave it back to the person,” said Keith Whitcomb, another resident against lifting the ban and a victim of a dog attack. “One of them stared me down and growling at me but I stood there because I’ve been attacked by dogs before on three different occasions. I’m not really fond of pit bulls.”
While Galloway certainly didn’t rule out moving the dog to high-risk, she was concerned about irresponsible owners who wouldn’t follow regulations.
“I struggle with this because I can see both sides,” she said. “So if we moved the pit bull, there would be all these things that need to be done. We all know there are pit bulls in town, and animals not socialized are very dangerous. But I struggle with knowing if those things will be followed.” .
“The coalition (members) are the people asking, but how do we know you’re going to follow that, when it hasn’t been at this point?”
Regardless of how it turns out, city officials encourage residents to understand the revised ordinance framework and ask questions.
“I hope people will really take time to read through it,” Major Rick Johnson said. “We are trying to come up with an animal ordinance that deals with all kinds of animals. There is a lot of stuff in there and it’s kind of hard to get your head wrapped around it. But we want people to understand it.”