The public hearing for the Animal At Large ordinance in Phelps County has created a conversation regarding what is included in the ordinance that dictates it will be unlawful for any person owning an animal of any kind to allow the animal to wander off the owner’s premises. Law enforcement personnel working with any police K-9 are excluded.

No threatening behavior or damage is required; just being off the owner’s property will be considered a punishable crime under the proposed ordinance.

The current range of punishment is up to one year in county jail or a fine of up to $1,000, the same as a Class A misdemeanor—the default for the ordinance. 

However, the revised statute could include provisions, according to Phelps County Prosecutor, Brendon Fox, in an earlier meeting on June 21, 2018, when the ordinance was first proposed.

“That is the default for the ordinance if you want to change that or restrict that in any way then we would have to put that in,” said Fox. “You can’t impose a minimum penalty; you can only set the maximum penalty, or you can set ‘this shall be the fine.’”

When it comes to the punishment phase of the ordinance, Captain Rick Hope, a spokesperson for the Phelps County Sheriff’s Department, feels the county should not deviate from the defined punishment dictated by the state statute.

“I think I would leave the state statute alone. It’s not like they are going to get a $1,000 fine or anything like that, but we would have that availability,” he said. And currently, the punishment has not included any provisions so the default will be enforced.

When it comes to how the proposed ordinance came about, Phelps County District 1 Commissioner, Larry Stratman, said there was a state law for the last 25 years, and “for some reason, the state repealed that ordinance, and we can’t figure out why.”

“So the sheriff came to us saying ‘I am getting a lot of calls of dogs threatening children, dogs threatening private property, and we don’t have a tool,’” said Stratman.

He continued that currently, the law reads that an animal has to be on the property the animal is disturbing for 24 hours before the sheriff’s department can step in, so if an animal is threatening a child the department can’t do anything about it.

“So he (Phelps County Sheriff, Richard Lisenbe) said, ‘we need a tool to protect children, and protect private property,’ so we asked Brendon to write an ordinance, it’s a fairly vague ordinance, and it reads like a leash law, so I can understand people’s concerns, but it does give a lot of discretion for the sheriff,” said Stratman.

The current law is not working according to Hope at the July 19, 2018, public hearing. “We have people being chased, harassed, and bitten and whatever else out there.”

An alternative that Phelps County resident, Faith Barnes, has found is to use readily available methods that deter dogs or animals in general.

She said “In the country, we can use methods to deter dogs such as eggs or non-lethal methods just to scare them away; we have had dogs that have buddied up with our dogs. We have one dog that is not on a leash that does roam a little bit; he is a non-aggressive very friendly dog.

“And I don’t want to chain or leash up my 14-year-old dog that is a good guard dog for our chickens. Once in a while, he will go across the street and check out what’s going on in the neighborhood, and I can’t imagine tying him up or keeping him tied up.

“I have a 5-year-old son so yes it would concern me to have aggressive animals. But in 5 years we have not had one.”

At the moment, the county commission is considering revisions for the ordinance and will make an inquiry with the city considering changes.

The beauty of the ordinance, Phelps County District 2 Commissioner, Gary Hicks, stated is that the law enforcement judicial system is applied with an investigation for a legitimate complaint and looks to see if there was damage and if there was fear or harm that then goes to the judge if there is evidence.

When asked if the proposed ordinance will add to the judge and sheriff departments’ workload, Hicks, said, "I believe Rick Hope said there are maybe four to five annual complaints. That is all. It’s just not that big of a deal. I think the public outcry far exceeded the consideration."