By Deborah Parkhill Mullis
Countywide leash laws are designed to protect the public from potentially dangerous animals, but the benefits don’t stop there. According to animal advocates, strongly enforced leash laws effectively address irresponsible pet ownership, lower the risk of unplanned litters and reduce the unwanted pet population. Currently, Union County does not have a leash law; but certain municipalities within the county, such as Waxhaw, do.
How other counties compare
In Mecklenburg County, with an estimated population density of 1,573 people per square mile, fines for breaking leash laws range from $50 to $500. Residents are required to keep all animals other than cats on a leash or inside a fence. A broken connection in an invisible fence is no excuse; the ordinance states invisible fencing must be marked and operating. When off the leash outdoors, animals trained to respond to verbal commands must stay in the yard and be with the person to whom they respond. Repeat offenders risk permanent seizure of their animals in addition to a $500 fine.
Cabarrus and Gaston counties also have leash laws. Lt. David Taylor, animal control supervisor with the Sheriff’s Office of Cabarrus County, can’t remember a time without a countywide leash law. "Leash laws make the owners accountable," he said.
Taylor noted that the cities of Concord and Kannapolis adopted the same ordinance as the county. On farms encompassing more than five acres, animals don’t have to be on a leash but they do have to stay on their property, he explained.
In Gaston County, citizens can learn about leash laws through a video presentation on the animal control department’s Web site. According to Sgt. Larry Lingafelt of the Gaston County Police Department, the leash law has existed for at least 24 years. "It’s a helpful tool and one of the best things to happen in Gaston County," he said.
Leash laws are often based on population density. But even with rapid suburban development, census statistics from 2006 indicate that Union County’s population density of approximately 275 people per square mile is still lower than those of Cabarrus (430), Gaston (560) or Mecklenburg counties. Yet, Union County impounded approximately 2,000 more pets than Cabarrus County last year.
Joe Blomquist, the state Department of Agriculture's animal welfare outreach coordinator, said N. C. general statute 67.12 disallows dogs over 6 months old from running at large at night unaccompanied by their owner. If such a dog were to cause personal injury or property damage, the owner would be liable. Aside from this state statute, he said, it is local government's responsiblity to develop leash laws.
"In North Carolina a lot of counties are still very rural with a lot farm land and open land, which is probably why they don’t have leash laws. If a farmer has 200 acres then his dog can go 200 acres," he said.
Lt. Michelle Starnes, director of Union County Animal Services, expressed concerned that a countywide leash law could double or triple the number of dogs entering the animal shelter. In the largely rural county, people are accustomed to letting their animals roam.
When returning a stray dog, animal control officers emphasize the importance of spaying and neutering, said Starnes, who believes that educating owners is the solution to pet overpopulation. Even without a countywide leash law, pet owners are charged between $25 and $150, plus the cost of boarding, for the release of their impounded pets.