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April 27, 2013
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Crime bites: Canine capers keep animal control deputy hopping

Douglas County’s lone animal control deputy, Lee Bartholomew, drives about 250 miles each shift.

One morning last month, Bartholomew had to get to Oakland for a dog chasing goats; then to Riddle, where senior services was concerned about the welfare of an elderly couple’s dog; then to Yoncalla for a pit bull that bit a 15-year-old girl; then Myrtle Creek for a report of dogs terrorizing humans on Chickering Street.

By the time Bartholomew got to Myrtle Creek, the dogs were gone and another call from elsewhere in Douglas County (5,134 square miles) had come in.

The Animal Control division has to prioritize because one man can’t be everywhere at once. Bartholomew, who in his career has seen his division shrink from five deputies, says calls, particularly those involving canines, are increasing.

“When you consider the size of Douglas County, it’s not fair or reasonable,” said veterinarian Martin Burnett, who’s practiced here for 34 years and serves on the county’s Dog Control Advisory Board.

Burnett and others who work with animals in Douglas County cite several recurring problems, including:

• A steadily increasing number of dog attacks on people and animals, due in part to the growing popularity of pit bulls and similar breeds.

• Tens of thousands of unlicensed and unvaccinated pets.

• Insufficient funds to compensate ranchers for pet-killed livestock.

• A dog control board unable to enforce its decisions.

In response to a growing pet population, Douglas County hired its first animal control deputy in the mid-1950s.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office today employs 144 people to serve a human population of 107,000. Deputy Bartholomew doesn’t know how many dogs there are in Douglas County, but he estimates it’s easily more than 107,000. He says 13,000 — the number of licensed dogs — is nowhere near the total number.

There’s no way to know how many cats live here, either. They aren’t required to be licensed or vaccinated. They run feral more frequently than other domesticated animals and can reproduce prodigiously.

“There’s a huge overpopulation of feral cats in Douglas County,” said Wendy Kang, director of Saving Grace Pet Adoption Center in Winchester.

Countywide, felines accounted for 28 percent of confirmed animal bites on people last year, according to the county’s health office. But it’s canines, with their social nature, that cause far more trouble with the law, Bartholomew said.

There are a number of dog-related laws already on the books.

Dogs in Douglas County must be licensed and have up-to-date vaccination records. They’re not allowed to run loose, bite people, chase vehicles, scatter garbage or trespass. Dogs who attack livestock may be “killed immediately,” according to Oregon law.

The laws aren’t the problem, according to the three members of the county’s dog control board. The problem is enforcement.

The sheriff’s office budgeted $271,088 for animal control this year. The total is up about $12,000 from last year, but down considerably from 2008-09, when $471,117 was allotted.

Since 2002, when the county began contracting with nonprofit Saving Grace to provide shelter services for Animal Control, the county has cut funding to the shelter by about $30,000, to $150,650, or about a quarter of its operating cost.

This coincides with an escalating number of reports of animal bites.

Confirmed bites increased 14 percent from 2011 (265 incidents) to 2012 (308 incidents). And reported bites in 2013 are slightly ahead of 2012 numbers, according to the county’s health office.

Tabitha Howell, the county’s animal bite coordinator, said the rise can be attributed in part to a public information campaign, including an effort to get veterinarians to report all bites they see.

About a quarter of all animal bites in the county are attributed to pit bulls. It’s a type of dog that’s been growing in popularity, but is far from universally loved.

Bartholomew said he sees many responsible pit bull owners in Douglas County, but the “majority” do not adequately train or care for their pets.

Twenty-four percent of all dog bites in 2012 came from pit bulls or pit mixes, with 41 confirmed bites, according to county records. One in three calls Bartholomew gets pertains to the breed, he said. He told the dog board he’d like to see penalties enhanced for pit bulls with violent histories.

Pit bull defenders point out that it is not one breed, but many divergent breeds that look about the same. But dogs commonly referred to as “pit bulls” are powerful, protective and display above-average aggression toward other dogs.

Following a rash of pit bull attacks in Roseburg city parks last summer — on other animals and humans — Umpqua Valley Humane Society President Cheryl Donahoo told the dog board in July that the majority of wounded animals going through the shelter are victims of pit bull attacks.

In one incident in May, Bartholomew was called to the 14th hole of the Stewart Park disc golf course, where a pit bull had just had its throat slit because it wouldn’t let go of a dachshund trapped in its locked jaws. The 4-year-old, 12-pound dachshund — Itty Bitty — died of her wounds.

Most pit bulls don’t make it out of impound at Saving Grace because they rarely pass the shelter’s strict temperament test and thus cannot be adopted, Kang said.

The city of Denver has banned the breed. Some insurance companies charge owners higher premiums for them, and some landlords in Douglas County already ban them.

According to veterinarian Burnett, the problem dog here used to be the Rottweiler, which is also noted for its strength and utility as a guard dog.

“I have a soft spot for pit bulls,” Burnett said. “The issue is uninformed owners.”

Bartholomew said many pit bull owners in the area try to make money on the side by breeding.

But for Chad Iseli, who has been breeding pit bulls in Central Oregon for 12 years and can get upward of $1,500 per puppy, it isn’t about the money.

“I’ll never be out of the red on this,” he said.

He said he’s seen pit bull prices decrease as more people have taken up breeding.

“Everybody started doing it,” Iseli said. “It became a fad.”

With 12 kids at home and upward of 30 dogs, Iseli said a puppy that doesn’t grow out of its aggression gets euthanized. But he’s breeding for good temperament, along with good structure, he said, so over the generations, he’s had to euthanize less and less.

Dogs also pose a threat to livestock, but it’s not just aggressive breeds that attack farm animals.

Often they don’t intend to kill what they’re chasing, said John Fine, head of the Oregon Sheep Growers Association.

“It’s just a fun-and-game thing to them,” Fine said.

South County pig farmer Don Polk, a former animal control deputy, said he knows of a guilty dachshund, and Douglas County sheep rancher Dan Dawson said he lost 12 lambs to a Chihuahua that separated them from their mothers and chased them across a road.

Polk recalled a female Labrador and a beau she picked up taking out 37 sheep in what he referred to as the “Honeymoon Massacre.”

Douglas County has paid claims brought by the owners of dead alpacas, miniature horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and llamas.

Fine said in recent years, society has come to value pets over livestock.

“If you owned a business downtown and someone robbed you, the police wouldn’t side with the robber,” he said.

The county established its Dog Control Advisory Board six years ago to adjudicate livestock claims against dog owners and take the burden off local courts. The county set aside $1,000 this year for settling claims by people who lost livestock to dogs. The board spent that money two months and two claims into the year.

When the Animal Control budget was cut in 2008, the amount allocated for livestock claims was reduced from $5,000 to $1,000. It’s gone over budget each of the last six years, but has paid out each claim.

Burnett said it’s good that livestock owners are being compensated by the dog board, but unfair taxpayers are footing the bill for irresponsible dog owners.

To address the issue, the county has sent the burden of adjudicating livestock claims back to the court and has designated Canyonville Justice of the Peace Carol Roberts to be the hearings officer for the board.

Ranchers in Oregon are allowed to shoot dogs attacking their animals. Dawson, who keeps several thousand sheep just outside Roseburg city limits, said he only kills dogs in the act of killing his sheep. He estimates he loses about 20 sheep a year to dogs, compared with about 100 to wild animals.

Dawson estimates he kills about one dog per month. He said some of his neighbors have started giving him a heads-up when their dogs are loose.

He said ranchers in the area have learned to deal with Bartholomew directly and to be patient with Animal Control.

“We all have Lee’s number saved in our phones,” he said.

• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at gandrews@nrtoday.com.

I have a soft spot for pit bulls. The issue is uninformed owners.

Martin Burnett
34-year Douglas County veterinarian, Dog Control Advisory Board member



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The News-Review Updated Jan 2, 2015 05:10PM Published Jun 26, 2013 04:14PM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.