The Final Revisions
At last night's City Council meeting, citizens spoke passionately about their beliefs regarding humane treatment of animals. Many also spoke against puppy mills. These are things that we all can agree on. But we have to keep an open mind on both sides of the other issues, again, ensuring we are not making a feel-good ordinance that disregards the rights of business owners and individuals. Because some Councilors already had several amendments prepared last night, we agreed with the City Manager's recommendation that we start the process over to ensure proper time for citizens to review the proposed amendments and also make sure no one in the public is confused about what changes are being made. I am also concerned by the fact that many people spoke against things that were part of the old ordinance, mistakenly thinking we were changing something that was already existing.
I would like to clear the air on a few items:
1. While I believe the task force had some very knowledgeable animal welfare experts, it did not include true representation for many of the businesses that were affected by it. When they say that there was an "entity representing someone who sells pets" on the task force, most of us do not consider Watermelon Mountain Ranch as a pet store. Ironically, I recently received a letter from Watermelon Mountain Ranch urging me not to allow pet stores to sell puppies and kittens. This does not seem like fair representation to me. I attended many of the task force meetings, all of the Governing Body work sessions and City Council meetings, and I can tell you that most of the concerns and ideas voiced at the public forums by many businesses as well as one very respected local veterinarian went unheeded. Additionally, many of the concerns of our own Animal Control division were ignored. When I look at the possible changes to this ordinance I have to value the rights of the people as much as the animals. And when we talk about compromise, it has to go both directions. Unfortunately, I don't believe the task force gave serious consideration to this.
2. Councilor Thomas made a comment that Councilors Wilkins and Clayton should not be writing responses in the paper before we vote on an agenda item. She must not have been paying attention at the previous meeting during the first reading when we voted. Maybe this was one of the meetings when she left early and just did not realize we took a vote on it. She implied that it appeared that we each had made up our minds on the issue, which is not true. The practice of silence on the part of our Governing Body has long been a problem. The citizens need to know what we are thinking and why. I can understand why some Councilors might be afraid to talk to people they disagree with, but that is how we understand each other and try to compromise.
3. There is no "block vote" on this Council, and those who regularly attend City Council meetings can attest to that. We routinely have contrasting views on many topics and vote our own consciences. I would recommend that anyone who thinks this, should spend time viewing the last several months of video of City Council meetings and votes, and see for yourself. The Mayor has voted more tie-breakers in the last 6 months than I have ever seen in several years of attending City Council meetings.
So Where do we go from here?
Do I think it is fair to prevent any live animal entertainment company from coming here because they have had an "alleged" violation in the last 5 years? No.
There is no distinction of what type of alleged violation, be it minor or major. How many violations have local companies like Intel had in the past 5 years? How many restaurants have had minor health violations? Should we shut them all down?
Here is the exact wording in the existing ordinance:
"Shall not have any official notices of alleged violations; or any stipulations, consent decrees, or settlements entered into with the USDA within the last five years and shall disclose any known pending investigations that are being conducted by the USDA."
One thing we must also consider from a business aspect is that "settlements" are entered into by many businesses who have done nothing wrong. Many businesses settle because it is cheaper to settle for a lower amount than to have the continued cost of attorney's fees and other costs associated with litigation. I know this first-hand from the insurance business.
Among the laundry list of restrictions and requirements it also states that... employees can have no felony convictions. (43) (7)
Someone who has been convicted of any type of felony should not be able to get a job? If someone has made a mistake and paid the price, why would we want to prevent them from getting a job? We should have compassion for people, as well as animals.
And how do we stop puppy mills? Is the answer to ban all pet stores from selling puppies and kittens in Rio Rancho, as the current ordinance mandates? I don't believe this is the answer. I think we can find a way to ensure that they are buying from reputable breeders. We can also have them provide additional warranties such as 14-day illness and 2-year hip dysplasia on their animals, which would help protect the consumer. A mandatory veterinary check after purchase would help to protect both the business owner and the consumer. The 70 puppies sold last year by Rio Rancho Pet Store does not have any significant influence on the over 1600 animals turned into Animal Control last year. Rio Rancho Animal Control also puts down many pets due to old age and infirmity, and people choose to euthanize their pets at Rio Rancho Animal Control because it is the cheapest in the region. These pets are included in the overall number of animals euthanized in our facility. I have had some citizens tell me recently that they feel people should not be able to buy puppies at all, but should be forced to adopt shelter animals. This is the type of knee-jerk reaction we need to avoid.
The Mayor's proposed amendment of mandatory spay/neutering is too extreme in my view. There is also evidence that shows early spaying and neutering can cause certain health problems. In my opinion it also violates private property rights. I believe that stiffening the fines for animals-at-large (on the loose in the city) will help. The number of unlicensed animals has to be addressed as well. Out of the estimated over 31,000 dogs and cats in Rio Rancho, only 2,663 are licensed. Licensing helps to identify the animal so that Animal Control can return it to its owner quickly. This cuts down on the cost of animals being housed or unidentified. It also makes people think twice about making sure they keep their pets on their property. If residents are doing better at keeping their animals at home, then there should be fewer unwanted or unexpected litters of puppies when male dogs are on the loose in the city.
My idea for this is as follows:
1. Animal-at-large, found not licensed and not sterilized -- $250 fine; fine waived if animal is licensed and sterilized within 30 days.
2. Animal-at-large, found either licensed or sterilized -- $175 fine; fine waived if additional item is taken care of within 30 days.
3. Animal-at-large, found licensed and sterilized-- $35 fine (same as the current animal-at-large fine).
This would put the responsibility back onto the owner. It also allows those who are thinking of breeding their dog the opportunity to make that decision themselves when they are ready.
Lastly, the issue of documented legitimate dog breeders vs. unknown backyard breeders has some problems to work out. Under the current ordinance, in order to become a hobby breeder you must pay a $100 fee to register. If you are caught breeding your dog without a license, it is a $100 fine. What incentive is there to get the hobby breeder license? By increasing the fine to $300, I believe this would give people the energy to get up and get licensed if they really want to have a litter of puppies. Under the current ordinance, in order to apply for a hobby breeder permit, you must pass an inspection of the area you plan to house the animals and you must also obtain a conditional use permit from Planning and Zoning. The higher fine should help to prevent some folks from having a litter of puppies on a whim, and then giving them away to others who might not be ready for a pet.
There are no easy answers, but my personal philosophy is to try to find viable solutions that are as fair as possible. As Councilor Scott mentioned in his comments last night; Are we on the road to banning Chicken McNuggets from Rio Rancho because of the poor living conditions of chickens? We need to keep some perspective when making decisions that affect everyone's lives. I will put up a link to a copy of the proposed amendments in a few weeks. I would suggest in the meantime that anyone who wants to criticize actually read the current 48 page ordinance before they start writing editorials in the newspaper or spreading rumors.