Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

May 5, 2013

Dog days of spring as canine issues continue to make the news

Perusing the news stories for the A-1 lineup one day last week, I made a bold comment: “It looks like we’re finally going to have a front page without a dog story.” Don’t get me wrong. I’m an animal lover. But the recent pit bull brouhaha in Bluefield has left most of the news staff weary of dog tales.

But I spoke too soon. Less than a half hour after we slotted the front-page stories, I received a press release from Summer Wyatt, state director of The Humane Society of the United States and former Mercer County resident. The organization was offering a reward in the case that involved the death and dumping of more than 10 pit bull puppies near Bluefield. It was good news, and a valid reason to change the A-1 lineup.

In a nod to the front-page news of late, Telegraph sports writer and cartoonist Tom Bone quickly sketched a mock masthead that read “Bluefield Doggy Telegraph,” which featured a pup sprawled over the text. It’s still hanging on my office wall.

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The recent decision by the Bluefield Board of Directors to ban new pit bulls from the city has sparked controversy and debate. Many pit fans have pointed out it is irresponsible owners, and not the dogs, that are the issue. I tend to agree.

There’s no doubt the city has been battling a growing pit bull problem, which has included irresponsible, unlicensed backyard breeders, multiple pit bulls at some residences and pits running loose, unleashed, with no collar or muzzle.

But with a pit bull ordinance already on the books requiring registration, proper containment and muzzles during walks, one has to wonder why a breed ban was necessary. Why not just enforce the existing code?

When questioned by the Daily Telegraph editorial board, Mayor Linda Whalen and board member Pete Sternloff defended the ban. At that time, more than 50 pit bulls had been registered with the city.

“We have found another 40 some that are illegal, and one property had 15,” she said. “We have found three breeders who are not registered. We know we have well over a 100 pit bulls in the city of Bluefield. The city has no registered pit bull breeders at the moment. We feel like this is something we just need to get control of. We just feel like this is one way to take a step back and get control of this problem. It can be revisited once we get it under control.”

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Last week’s tragic story about the death and dumping of the pit bull puppies just outside the city limits sparked renewed debate over the city decree. Some blamed Bluefield’s new ban for the deaths of the pups. I disagree.

Any individual who could callously dump the bodies of innocent puppies does not deserve to be a pet owner. Even with a ban in place, there is no justifiable reason to cull a litter. There are countless individuals in Mercer County, and surrounding areas, who would have taken the pups and fostered them had they known it was a matter of life and death.

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The story about the pit bull pups also sparked a renewed discussion of a countywide spay-neuter ordinance. Bluefield has such a regulation; Mercer County does not. County officials contend state code prohibits such an ordinance, yet Bluefield adopted one years ago based on potential public health concerns.

Who is right? It depends on what lawyer, and politician, you ask.

As a lobbyist for the HSUS, Wyatt agrees state code does not allow for such ordinances, yet she is in favor of them. I am as well. In recent years there has been a public outcry over the euthanasia of dogs at the Mercer County Animal Shelter. While no one wants to see dogs put down, the reality is that hundreds of animals are brought to the shelter each month. Without families to adopt these pets, what is the county supposed to do?

In an editorial board session last week, Senator Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said he would support and even sponsor legislation that would give counties the authority to enact spay-neuter ordinances.

“(During the session) I had many people in my office every single day. When it was advocating for old people, young people and animals ... those are the (stories) that made me cry,” he said. “Would I sponsor it? Yes, I would. And I would work for it.”

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Meanwhile, there appears to be discord between Bluefield and county officials regarding the recently enacted pit bull ban. While the city has an animal control officer who can pick up illegal pit bulls and take them to the shelter, county officials say they cannot legally keep a dog if an owner comes to claim it.

The issue has played out in the media in a proverbial you-know-what match.

Who is right? Does it matter? What’s regrettable is that city and county officials cannot work together on an issue as simple as animal welfare. Instead of lobbying shots at each other via ink in the daily newspaper, why not come together at the table and work at addressing animal issues across the region?

If city and county leaders cannot come together on a problem such as pet overpopulation, how will they ever unite for big-picture needs like infrastructure and job creation?

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As local leaders bicker and residents debate the issues on Facebook, many animals — pit bulls, mutts and strays — continue to suffer. What will it take to pull elected officials and the citizenry together to combat pet overpopulation, irresponsible backyard breeders and other animal welfare issues?

Maybe the death of 10 or more pit bull puppies. Or maybe not.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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