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Our Opinion: Sharpsburg should end arbitrary limit on dog ownership

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A Wilson County man’s recent brush with the law has brought a little-known dog ownership restriction in the town of Sharpsburg to light.

Gregory Cherry of Lincoln Street is due in court Tuesday on three charges of violating town animal control ordinances. Sharpsburg Police Chief Michael Thomas charged him with creating a public nuisance, allowing dogs to run at large and — get this — keeping more than three dogs on his property in the town limits.

Chapter 91 of the town’s code of ordinances states that “maintaining an excessive number of dogs on private property is detrimental to the health, safety and wellbeing of the citizens of Sharpsburg as well as the animals themselves.”

In legitimate cases of animal hoarding, that’s correct. But Sharpsburg’s definition of “excessive” probably doesn’t match yours.

The ordinance calls for no more than three dogs older than 5 months to be kept on single-family residential lots smaller than 30,000 square feet, reporter Lindell J. Kay explained in a Wednesday story.

Courts have upheld animal limit laws as a constitutional exercise of municipal authority. But if you think capping the number of dogs a taxpayer can keep in his own home is draconian, you’re not alone.

The American Kennel Club lobbies against limit laws and urges local governments to address neglect, abuse and nuisance animal issues by treating the cause rather than a presumed symptom.

“Limiting the number of dogs an individual may own is an ineffective solution to animal control problems because it fails to address the heart of the issue — irresponsible ownership,” an AKC position paper states. “Whether they own five dogs or two dogs, irresponsible owners will still allow their animals to run loose, leave their mess in a neighbor’s yard or bark long into the night.”

A three-dog ownership limit flunks the common sense test. One aggressive dog that’s allowed to run loose poses a greater risk to public safety than four tame dogs that live indoors and are walked on leashes.

The ordinance also fails to differentiate between canines of varying size. English mastiffs can tip the scales at 160-230 pounds while the average Chihuahua weighs 4-6 pounds.

Animal advocates don’t begrudge local officials their authority to curb roaming, biting and excessive barking, but the source of these problems is the owners, not their pets. A “lawbreaker” with four dogs may be a model citizen who keeps the family canines on their best behavior while an ordinance-compliant resident with two untrained dogs could be a neighborhood nightmare.

“Limit laws often force caring, responsible owners to surrender their excess animals to shelters that are already overcrowded, thereby increasing a city’s shelter population problems and euthanasia rates,” the AKC explains.

Enforcing the ordinance as a stand-alone charge would constitute an abuse of discretion — if a resident has four or five dogs that don’t bother anyone, why intervene? And enforcing it in concert with other local rules is redundant.

Gregory Cherry is accused of allowing his dogs to run loose in the neighborhood. Police already had two applicable charges to file. Why tack on a third?

“Strongly enforced animal control laws, nuisance regulations, requirements for pet owners to be respectful of neighbors and society and increased public education efforts are all better ways to address the issue of irresponsible dog ownership,” according to the AKC.

State law treats each local ordinance violation as a Class 3 misdemeanor. Defendants who are convicted typically pay a fine of $50 to $500 for each count.

The town of Sharpsburg straddles three counties — Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe. Because Cherry’s Sharpsburg home is in Wilson County, he’s been summoned to District Court in downtown Wilson to answer the allegations on Tuesday morning.

District Attorney Robert Evans’ office should dismiss the limit law violation. Most Sharpsburg residents probably weren’t even aware the ordinance existed. Prosecutors can proceed on the two remaining charges if they have sufficient evidence to seek a conviction.

The Sharpsburg Board of Commissioners would be wise to strike the three-dog limit from the books. It’s a needless rule that limits personal freedom and infringes on private property rights, and it does nothing to address the problem of irresponsible pet ownership it’s intended to solve.

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