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Palm Coast Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 1 year ago

City attorney: City officials have no control over dangerous dog Cooper's case

Also: Trap, neuter, return program has TNR'd 138 cats since 2016.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

There are certain allowances for discretion in the Florida law concerning dangerous dogs. For instance, a hearing officer dealing with a dog that's being declared dangerous for severely biting a human for the first time can opt to have the dog put down, or instead let the dog live with various restrictions.

But on one matter, the law isn't flexible: If a dog that has already previously been declared dangerous "attacks and causes severe injury to or death of any human ... [the dog] shall be immediately confiscated by an animal control authority, placed in quarantine ... and thereafter destroyed in an expeditious and humane manner," according to Florid Statute 767.13. In such cases, the owner is also guilty of a felony. 

Palm Coast City Attorney Bill Reischmann explained the state law on dangerous dogs to the Palm Coast City Council at its workshop Oct. 30. Also in attendance were a number of locals there to support Cooper, a dog that a city hearing officer had ordered to be put down after it bit a man in Palm Coast after having previously been declared dangerous in the city of Port Orange.

Cooper's case has been the source of a months-long conflict between the city of Palm Coast and the dog's supporters.

Cooper had bitten a woman in Port Orange in February, when he was owned by current owner Dottye Benton's daughter. After that bite, the daughter gave Cooper to her mother, and, just days later, Cooper bit a man who'd been hired to clean Benton's carpet. Because that bite was Cooper's second, Palm Coast's hearing officer ruled that he must be put down, in accordance with Florida law.

Benton has appealed his case to Circuit Court, saying she wants Cooper to be released to a western Florida rescue ranch whose owner has offered to take him. The dog's supporters have accused city officials of being inhumane for not allowing the transfer. 

"For better or for worse, you do not have control in this process, and neither do I."

— BEAU FALGOUT, interim city manager

But city officials have repeatedly responded that state law doesn't allow them that option, and that the city's officials can't ignore the state law. 

"For better or for worse, you do not have control in this process, and neither do I," interim City Manager Beau Falgout told the council at the workshop. 

Even the Circuit Court judge, Reischmann said, won't be able to hear any new evidence in the case; the court's purview is simply to determine whether the city's hearing officer applied the law properly.

On one matter, though, the city might have some leeway: After Cooper was impounded at the Humane Society, where he'll remain as the Circuit Court appeal proceeds, he bit a handler there while Benton was visiting him. The city pressed a criminal charge against Benton, as Cooper's owner, in connection with the bite. But the city may not move forward with that charge.  

As Reischmann, explaining the provisions of the state law, laid out the legal definition of owner — "any person, firm, corporation, or organization possessing, harboring, keeping, or having control or custody of an animal" — City Councilman Vincent Lyon questioned whether Benton could be held responsible for a bite that occurred while the dog was in the care of the Humane Society.

"That matter’s been put on hold," Reischmann replied. "Depending on what happens with the second attack, that matter can be rendered moot."

Two people spoke during the meeting's public commend period, near the end of the meeting and after Reischmann's presentation on the state law on dangerous dogs, urging the city to transfer Cooper to the rescue ranch. 

City considers future of trap, neuter, return program

The trap, neuter and return program for feral cats in the city of Palm Coast has TNR'd 138 cats since its implementation in 2016, according to Palm Coast city staff, and the city is now reviewing its procedures and soliciting community input on the program. 

So far, city Code Enforcement Manager Barbara Grossman said at a City Council workshop Oct. 30, the city has worked with community organizations to implement the TNR program and has created a number of city code exemptions to allow residents to support feral cats without running afoul of restrictions concerning animals running at large or being unlicensed.

The city has also loaned out traps for the cats, and often has a waiting list for its traps, Grossman said. Not long ago, she said, a resident who set one up ended up with a young bobcat instead of a feral domestic cat. (Animal control staff helped release the bobcat.)

Grossman said that some jurisdictions have been letting residents who care for feral cats build enclosed "cat runs" for them, or  allow the cats into their garages at night.

City Councilwoman Heidi Shipley asked whether the city should consider increasing the number of pets residents are permitted to have from three to five in the case of cats, making it less likely that people caring for feral cats would have to worry about violating  the pet restriction.

The problem with that approach, Grossman said, is that raising the number too high could impact zoning, because a building containing a high number of animals would be considered a kennel. "Now you’re changing not only the animal control ordinance, but now you’re getting into the land development code," she said. 

But, Grossman said, the city has not been penalizing people for owning or caring for more than three animals: The only times she's enforced the three-animal limit, she said, have been in cases of hoarding, animal cruelty or neglect.

Councilman Bob Cuff still thought the limit was worth reconsidering.

"That is probably, after the speed limit, the most violated regulation in Flagler County," he said. "If we are moving toward encouraging enclosures … we may need to look at that. My personal belief is we don't need to be sanctioning people who are doing this properly." 

Two Audubon Society members who spoke during the workshop's public comment spoke about feral cats' predation of wildlife, saying that TNR alone is not enough to keep free-roaming cats from killing birds, reptiles and amphibians. 

"I’m speaking from a conservation perspective: native wildlife developed here without house cats," David Smith said. He suggested the city look at implementing a public education campaign to encourage residents to keep their house cats indoors to keep them from killing wildlife and enlarging feral cats colonies.

Councilman Vincent Lyon commended the Audubon Society members for addressing the council, and said he was aware of the danger feral cats pose to the environment. 

"They are an invasive species; they do create damage to the environment," he said. He also noted that feeding feral cats, contrary to a resident's assertion earlier in the workshop, doesn't prevent them from killing birds. But, he said, his research had indicated that TNR does reduce the number of feral cats in the wild. And, he said, "I believe that ... the goal of both groups are the same, which is the reduction of the number of loose and feral cats."

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