ERWIN — It’s a charge that seems to appear on the Unicoi County Sessions Court docket weekly and an offense the county’s animal control officers say is a common occurrence.
Unicoi County Animal Control Officer Tim Shelton and Erwin Animal Control Officer Gary Hatcher said pet owners allowing their animals to run at large is a serious problem throughout Unicoi County. The officers also said many of those charged with violations are repeat offenders.
“They don’t heed the warnings when you give them warnings, you write them citations after the warnings and you just continue writing them citation on top of citation, and it seems like they just don’t take it seriously,” Shelton said.
However, the county’s animal control officers have found themselves with a powerful ally as of late in their efforts to reign in unleashed animals. While the consequences of violating the running at large law are typically fines and court costs, they appear to be becoming more severe. Several violators of the running-at-large law cited into Sessions Court have recently been sentenced to serve several days in jail.
“Now the judicial system is starting to step in and take this more seriously,” Shelton said. “They’re starting to realize how serious running-at-large dogs are.”
Hatcher said the first instance of a running-at-large violator being sentenced to jail time occurred around three years ago. Over the past couple of months, though, the instances of this have increased, with an Erwin man being sentenced to five days in jail recently.
While both the county and the town have leash laws, Shelton said offenders often plead ignorance of the law when found in violation. Over the past three years, Shelton said he has written around 15 citations for violation of the running-at-large law in the past six months. Hatcher said he wrote two in one day recently and has written “hundreds” in his 12 years as the town’s animal control officer.
The officers said the problems associated with pets being allowed to run at large include attacks and property damage. Shelton said if a motorist swerves to miss a loose dog and this leads to property damage and injury, the pet owner is responsible for damages. Hatcher said that free-roaming animals also run the risk of contracting rabies from other wildlife and owners allowing unleashed or unfenced animals to go outside simply to use the bathroom is a violation.
Shelton said that over the past three years, there have been more than 100 reported dog bite cases in the county.
While the running-at-large law most commonly applies to dogs, this isn’t always the case, officers said. The law also applies to livestock, Hatcher said, adding that county officers have faced this in several cases.
While citation issuance is at the discretion of animal control officers, Shelton said the first offense is a $25 fee, with second offense being a $40 fee plus a charge of $10 per day that an impounded animal is kept at the county’s animal shelter. The third offense typically warrants a citation into court, a $60 fee and a charge of $10 per day for housing at the animal shelter.
Both officers said they are pleased violators of the running-at-large law may now be subjected to harsher penalties. Hatcher said he hopes this will encourage more responsible pet ownership in the county.
“It’s not a laughing matter anymore, and people are not taking it serious, so we’ve got a job to do and we’re going to do it,” Hatcher said. “It’s our job to protect the public and protect people’s property and protect people from getting bit by dogs. Whatever it takes, we’re going to do it.”