More than 100 people crammed into a basement room and flowed out into the hallway of the municipal building Wednesday night to voice their opinions about proposed changes to the city’s vicious dog ordinance which would include labeling all pit bull breeds and pit bull mixes as vicious dogs.
The ordinance change is being crafted by the Watertown Public Safety Committee to deal with what officials call a vicious dog problem in the city. The committee asked the Watertown Police Department to put together a report on dog bites, citations and use of force against dogs by officers in the past few years.
Committee Chairman Mark Kuehl previously told the Daily Times after reviewing the report the committee deemed pit bulls vicious by nature and the dogs would be subject to the restrictions placed on vicious dogs in the ordinance if it is passed by the city council. Those restrictions include dogs being muzzled at all times when off owner’s properties, outdoor pens and dog areas being secured, signs posted on owner’s properties and a possible minimum insurance policy limit on dog owner’s homeowners issuance.
The ordinance is still at the committee level and any provisions can be changed. The ordinance changes will also have to be approved twice by the common council before they would go into effect.
The public was invited to speak to the committee during the meeting and 49 people choose to speak. The overwhelming majority of those that spoke were against the automatic restrictions against pit bulls.
Watertown resident Roger Schroeder said he has been a dog groomer for eight years and has lots of other experience with dogs prior to that. He said singling out pit bulls deprives owners of their due process under law and the committee is mistaken about the nature of the dogs.
“Pit bulls are generally very intelligent, kind dogs. At one point they were known as the nanny breeds because people used them to watch their children. Pit bulls unfortunately do have a fierce demeanor. They look fierce, so people use them as guard dogs and people do poorly train them and misuse them,” Schroeder said. “The issue is the individuals with the dangerous dogs who should be punished, not every pit bull owner.”
A common theme from most of those who spoke at the meeting was responsibility for vicious dogs lies with the owners, who should face restrictions and fines. But blanket restrictions on all pit bulls would be unfair and not solve the city’s problems.
Watertown Humane Society Shelter Manager Jody Reamer said the shelter gets in over 100 dogs a year, many of which are pit bulls or pit bull mixes. She said she has been bit by two dogs in her time with the humane society, both of which were Chihuahuas. She said the shelter temperament tests every dog that comes through the shelter and she has passed many pit bulls to be with children.
“I feel that deeming a breed vicious because of their breed is so very unfair. It is like children, do we blame a child for how they are? Or do we blame the parents for how they are? Dogs are a product of their environment,” Reamer said.
Sarah Sindermann, of Watertown, presented the committee with a petition she said had signatures from 100 Watertown residents who were against deeming pit bulls vicious. She added the petition was only up online for the past 24 hours.
Watertown resident Jeanne Zuleger spoke at the meeting and said her dog was attacked twice by a neighbor’s pit bull and is now scared to go outside.
“I understand you all love your dogs and I love my dog too ... and now she won’t go outside. She will be going to live with my in-laws,” Zuleger said. “After the second attack the dog was taken away and they now have two more pit bulls. What do I do? I would rather send her to someone else’s house so she is not scared to go out for her walks. My first thought was please do something.”
Greg Hoffmann said Zuleger’s case highlights the real issue with vicious dogs.
“You get rid of one dog and they bring in two more, but the pattern continues. It’s not the breed. If they would have had a rottweiler the same thing would have happened,” Hoffmann said. “Chief Roets you don’t direct your men to pull over people driving red cars, you pull people over because of their actions. Breed specific legislation is just like that. Please don’t do this. I’ve been around for a while, I’m an older guy and I remember when it was the Dobermans back in the ‘70s. Later on it was the rottweiler, then the German shepherds and today it’s pit bulls. What’s it going to be next week? Rather than address the bad dog of the day, address the ownership issue.”
Alderman and committee member Fred Smith said the committee took up the vicious dog issues because there is a serious problem in the community. He added they did not start off looking at pit bulls, but the numbers from the police department’s report showed a high percentage of the bites in the city were done by pit bulls. He added it is the committees job to protect public safety in the city.
“By the grace of God we haven’t had a death, but if we don't do something it is going to be a tragedy,” Smith said.
Smith suggested the committee look into increasing the fines dog owner’s face for not registering their dogs and for letting them run at large in the city.
“The committee has to seek to provide greater punishments and greater accountability. There has to be cooperation across the board. We see what can happen when dogs are out running in large numbers,” Smith said.
The committee agreed to continue to research the insurance requirements and if higher fines could be implemented on negligent owners. The committee will meet again once more research has been gathered in the coming months to continue to work on the legislation, Kuehl said.