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Change of heart

GATESVILLE – Facing a sea of orange-clad hunters at their regularly scheduled meeting here last week, the Gates County Board of Commissioners rejected their own plans to tweak the county’s Animal Control Ordinance.

The board, at their March meeting, had reached agreement on the consideration of making eight text amendments to the existing ordinance, to include the height of grass in an area where an animal is kept; clarifying the number of days a person can keep and provide sustenance to a stray animal before becoming the owner/keeper of that animal; the size of an enclosure where an animal is kept (and an update to the term “proper shelter); adding to the section dealing with animals running at large (which excluded hunting dogs that were under “voice commands/control”), and prohibiting the tethering of unattended dogs.

Former Gates County Sheriff Ed Webb encouraged the commissioners to stick with the county’s 2014 Animal Control Ordinance, which he holds in his hand.

“We have discussed these proposed text amendments over a long period of time, to include at two workshops,” stated Commission Chairwoman Linda Hofler, referencing an ongoing debate in the aftermath of a dog’s death last July on Rountree Lane near Gatesville.

Prior to taking action on the text amendments, the commissioners held a public hearing. Over a span of 52 minutes, nearly 20 individuals filed one-by-one to the podium. All supported the county’s original Animal Control Ordinance that has been in place since 2014. However, the hunters in the crowd pointed to and were in opposition of two specific amendments that were proposed for inclusion in the ordinance – a portion of 313.2 that dealt with specially trained hunting/working dogs that “can be controlled by voice commands” and a portion of 201.15 that calls for an enclosure (dog pen) to be a minimum of 10x10x6 in order to “allow adequate movement and room for exercise according to the size and number of animals in the area.” Some addressed the proposed amendments to the tethering ordinance, saying it’s impossible to be physically in the presence of those animals in the way the changes called for.

Following the public hearing, Commission Vice Chairman Jack Owens entered a motion to not accept the eight text amendments. Commissioner Ray Freeman offered a second.

“In regards to what I heard from the public this morning and from what I heard at recent meetings I’ve had with citizens of our county, particularly the hunters, I was influenced by a number of things,” Owens said. “I feel this board took into consideration the things we heard from the public, from both sides of this issue. We were making what we felt were small changes, but we didn’t know the effect they would have on the citizens of our county, to include hunters.”

Owens said he had traveled the county to see first-hand how the proposed changes would impact local citizens.

“I saw some cases where someone may be burdened (by changes to the ordinance) and their dog was doing well…being taken care of,” he stressed.

“We’re not here because of these great dog owners; we’re here because of a real small handful of people who won’t do right,” Owens added. “You don’t put hardship on the innocent.”

He encouraged those who witness animal abuse – dog, cat, horse, etc. – to speak up, and encouraged the Sheriff’s Office to respond to all calls and enforce the county and state laws.

Freeman noted that he could not support changes to an ordinance that “would make a person a criminal or cause an arrest.”

Commissioner Henry Jordan asked Owens to modify his motion to address some inconsistencies within the current ordinance.

After several minutes of discussion, Owens withdrew his original motion and entered a new one: to continue with the animal control ordinance as defined in 2014; strike section 307.1 (Quarantine fees paid to the county will be established by animal control and submitted to the Board of Commissioners for approval – it was learned those fees are controlled by the Tri-County Animal Shelter); and changing the owner/keeper of strays section to a consistent 10 days before reporting (the current ordinance listed three days in one section and 10 days in another).

Freeman seconded the new motion, which passed by a 5-0 vote.

“This has been a difficult time; I do appreciate everyone’s voice on this,” stated Hofler. “I think this issue snowballed. It was never our intention to eliminate hunting; I don’t know how that got started. Our intention has always been to be sure that no dog in this county is neglected or abused.”

All hunters that spoke during the public hearing addressed their love of animals, saying they attend to their dogs daily, to include ensuring they have fresh food and water; are kept cool in the summer and warm in the winter; and interact socially with their dogs.

Tommy Doughtie of Eure presented the commissioners with a petition containing 341 names that encouraged the board members to abandon plans to amend the current Animal Control Ordinance. The petition specifically addressed opposition to the proposed changes to tethering, having dogs under voice command, and the size of the animal’s enclosure.

“These changes impose unreasonable restrictions on animal owners; they will increase the difficulty of owning, training and enjoying the use of hunting dogs in Gates County,” said Doughtie, reading from the petition.”

Doughtie said state laws dealing with animal control and animal cruelty are sufficient.

“No one on this petition agrees with animal cruelty; we feel our existing county ordinance and the state laws can address those that abuse animals,” he said.

Bobby Harris of Camden, president of the Albemarle Houndsmen Association, said the organization has numerous members from Gates County who are opposed to the proposed text amendments.

“Having a dog under voice command out in the field is difficult; he may be 200 yards from you but he can’t hear you,” Harris said. “We would certainly appreciate you (commissioners) voting against this.”

The majority of hunters, Harris said, use GPS units to track the location of their dogs.

Harris added that the Gates County ordinance would be “complaint driven” also poses a problem.

“People can use that to get back at a neighbor in a situation where dogs were never a problem,” he stressed.

Kevin McGinnis of Sunbury, president of the Watery Swamp Hunt Club, said his fellow hunters oppose the text amendment.

“What has brought us here today was the issue on Rountree Lane last year,” McGinnis noted, referencing the death of a dog that was chained and apparently succumbed to heat. “That could have been handled through the authority of North Carolina law and our county’s current animal ordinance regarding animal cruelty.

“The problem is a lack of enforcement of current laws regarding animal cruelty,” McGinnis continued. “More laws and stringent regulations won’t solve a thing if there’s not a will to enforce the law. (Our club) ask the commissioners to rethink the need to create more laws and vote to keep our current ordinance in place and place more emphasis on enforcement.”

Earl Preedy of Eure noted that the dog on Rountree Lane, “laid in the sun for two to three days without water and shelter.”

Preedy said there are laws on the state and local level to address such abuse, referencing NCGS 14.360 (“if any person shall maliciously kill or cause to be killed any animal by intentional deprivation of necessary sustenance, that person shall be guilty of a Class H Felony.”)

He further cited an existing portion of the county’s animal ordinance (section 303.2: It shall be unlawful for any owner or keeper to fail to provide their animal or animals with constant access to proper shelter and protection from the

weather, adequate and wholesome food and water to keep the animal or animals in good health and comfort.)

“Those laws could have been easily enforced by the Gates County Sheriff’s Office,” Preedy remarked. My question is why weren’t they enforced?

“These proposed changes will turn responsible and law-abiding animal owners into criminals overnight,” he added.

Preedy admitted the enclosures he uses for his dogs are slightly smaller than the 10x10x6 proposal, but feels what he now has are sufficient.

As to the tethering issue, Preedy said dogs can be secured in a humane manner so it can be in the shade (with shelter and water) and not become tangled.

“I have one dog that will not stay in his pen; he digs, chews and climbs,” Preedy said. “Tethering is the only way I can keep him in the yard when we’re not hunting. I can’t put him on a tether and stand beside him all day as this new ordinance states I must do.”

Mike Long of Eure, representing White Oak Hunt Club, also cited existing state and county laws on the books that can adequately address animal abuse.

“One of the rules you want to propose is to raise the barrels (doghouses) off the ground,” Long observed. “My barrels have been partially buried in the ground for over 30 years and no one complains. My dogs stay warmer in my barrels; I put plywood up so my dogs can stay in the shade and to keep the wind from blowing in.”

Henri McPlees of Pamlico County serves as a lobbyist for the NC Sporting Dogs Association. Her organization opposes more animal control laws that they see as unnecessary.

“We ask you to vote no on what is being proposed,” she asked the commissioners.

McPlees stated she felt the need for more laws in Gates County arose from the Rountree Lane incident. In the aftermath, she said passionate animal activists, “seized this opportunity to run a play out of the animal rights playbook.”

“They never let a crisis go to waste; in the name of the dead dog they circulated a petition and begin to campaign for changes in your animal control ordinance,” McPlees noted. “Month by month they asked for more language; tighten various paragraphs; restricting the conduct of citizens to conform to their philosophy. Their result is this proposal before you today.”

Reggie Askew of Eure said he thinks the issue at hand could be taken care of if all animal owners would simply take care of their four-legged friends.

Former Gates County Sheriff Ed Webb stated this wasn’t the first time that changes to the ordinance have been proposed.

“These are basically the same groups that came before this board, with different commissioners, back in 2009 and 2014 asking for changes to our animal ordinance,” Webb said. “It’s the same language, just shined up a bit. It was rejected back then and I’m asking this board to reject it today.”

Webb also touched on the economic benefits that hunters and hunt clubs bring to Gates County…..purchasing dog food; the need for veterinary care; and leasing land for hunting purposes.

Cornelius Godwin of Sunbury, representing Old Buck Hunting Club, said he takes pleasure in caring for 25 hunting dogs each and every day….to include supplying fresh food and water and keeping their pens clean.

“Please let things stay as they are now; we don’t need other people coming into our county trying to change the way we do things,” Godwin said.

Thomas Gibson of Gatesville said he just recently invested over $1,000 on new kennels for his hunting dogs. He was concerned now if that investment was wasted based on the proposed size requirements for animal enclosures.

“I hope you see that the ordinance we have is okay. If you want to vote against what these folks today are saying, then God help you,” said Earl Rountree of Sunbury.

Emily Cross of Gates said she had problems with a neighbor’s dog and thanked the Sheriff’s Animal Control Officer for doing his job. She was in favor of keeping the animal ordinance as currently written.

Montgomery Clemmons of Gates said he didn’t feel the entirety of the proposed changes need to be abandoned. Rather, he suggested talking to the deer hunters and the animal rights activists to “help everybody.”

Denise Miller of Eure said she knew the hunters in attendance at the public hearing cared for their dogs.

“But what about the ones that don’t,” she asked. “If the ordinance needs to be tweaked, can we still look at the animals that are not being taken care of, that are being treated cruelly. Those are the dogs without a voice here today.”

Chuck Brothers of Gates said he isn’t a hunter, but leases his farmland to the Drum Hill Hunt Club.

“They do a great job for me by reducing the (deer) population that wants to eat my investment,” Brothers stated. “If you can find money to renovate the old courthouse; if you can find money to expand the wastewater field on Cotton Gin Road; you need to find money to put in the Sheriff’s budget to add a new ordinance enforcement officer.”

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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