Dog patrol: Stepped-up leash law enforcement sparks resistance, debate in Dog Town USA
May 21, 2016
It isn’t easy being an animal control officer in Steamboat Springs.
Sometimes, a stray sheep becomes transfixed by its own reflection in a window of a home on Ski Trail Lane and needs to be wrangled off a patio deck and taken back to the ranch.
Other times, a mother duck and her ducklings underestimate Steamboat Springs' rush hour and pick a perilous time to start crossing a downtown street.
And then there's Mamba, the notorious boxer-husky mix that has escaped from the city's animal shelter not once, but twice.
In a city that's home to an estimated 5,500 dogs, it is the canines that generate the most calls for the officers.
The two women who patrol the streets, fetch stray dogs and uphold the leash laws in local parks have recently been charged with stepping up their canine efforts.
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Their work aims to avoid repeats of near-tramplings by agitated moose and dog bites that have proven lethal to other dogs.
But these women in uniform often send residents running, and as they are tasked to hit the streets more often, they're finding greater resistance and seeing more people running away.
One resident who recently received a ticket on Blackmere Drive even went so far as to write an unprintable, vulgar word in the dust on the officer's animal control vehicle.
On Wednesday, as officer Krista Amatuzio approached two women who were allowing their dogs to run free in Whistler Park — intending to issue a written warning and educate the women about leash rules — at least two other dog owners on the other side of the park took their off-leash dogs, quickly got into their cars and left.
"This is a common sight," Amatuzio said.
At times, the reaction is comical.
A man who was about to set off on a hike with two off-leash dogs in Barn Village saw Amatuzio's Dodge Ram and clumsily fumbled through his jacket for leashes that were tucked away.
"I was going to put them on a leash; I just didn't want them to strangle me in the car," the man said, hoping to avoid a citation.
Even so, the officers say most of their interactions with offenders are positive.
But sometimes, they are forced to give their neighbors and acquaintances tickets if they're caught multiple times or their dog continues to wander off.
The officers don't enjoy it.
It's simply what they've been charged to do as they uphold a law City Council adopted more than 20 years ago.
Last year, animal control officers responded to 700 complaints about dogs and nearly 50 dog bites.
And while they used to be held back by responsibilities such as cleaning cages at the animal shelter, a new arrangement with the Routt County Humane Society has freed these officers from such tasks and given them more time to patrol and be proactive, rather than reactive.
This has come as a surprise to some residents, who have gone years without seeing the white Dodge Ram and the officers who uphold the law.
The stepped up enforcement has also sparked a debate in Dog Town USA.
Before the clock struck noon Wednesday, animal control officer Jennifer Good had already walked more than 10,300 steps to keep the peace in Dog Town USA.
She started with a strenuous uphill foot patrol on Blackmere Drive, an area in which several residents have complained about negative interactions with off-leash dogs, and large bags of dog poop can be spotted about every quarter mile.
The canines she saw this day were all leashed up, including one dog that belonged to an owner Good recently had to remind about rules.
All the dog owners were given a thank you for following the rules.
Good, who worked as an exotic animal trainer at the Cincinnati Zoo before she moved to Steamboat, has served as an animal control officer for eight years.
But it wasn't until this year she has been able to fill her days with so many patrols of the community.
With more time on the street, the officers report they are able to educate more dog owners and even catch more stray dogs they may not have seen before.
On the other hand, they're also encountering more resistance and catching more flak.
Good takes her job seriously — so seriously, she's given a ticket to an acquaintance at a store she regularly shops at.
"I didn't enjoy that," Good said after she directed a man who was walking his dog on-leash to the city's two off-leash parks. "It's just what I had to do."
Way up on the Skyline Trail, near Fish Creek Falls, Good got her first chance Wednesday to educate a dog owner.
Coming around a corner, a woman spotted Good and quickly clipped her off-leash dog to a leash.
Good took the woman's contact information and offered a friendly reminder about the rules.
The officers have discretion on whether to issue a ticket.
Like many of the other dog owners stopped by Good, this woman had a question.
"Where can I let my dog walk free off the leash?"
It's a theme shared by many owners caught without a leash: They simply want to let their dogs run free.
Others find the leash laws oppressive and unnecessary, claiming they can responsibly manage their dog under sight and voice control.
But with so much non-compliance, the city's policymakers have recently undertaken an effort to look at the rules and see what could be done to increase compliance.
Handing over control of the shelter to the Humane Society and giving animal control officers more time to patrol was a first step.
But there are other possiblities.
■ Will fines be raised?
■ Will new parks be created for off-leash dogs?
■ Or is the debate about the leash law destined to continue?
First, though, city policymakers wanted to address the issue of resistance faced by officers.
Last month, Steamboat Springs City Councilman Scott Ford let out a bark about the city's dog rules and some of the issues officers have recently faced as they attempt to enforce the rules.
He dedicated a large portion of a recent Coffee with Council meeting to the topic, at which he and others noted there were many visible signs of non-compliance in the city.
One community member worried about the amount of dog feces in Steamboat and said if nothing is done, Dog Town USA would be buried in it.
More recently, the conversation has shifted to horror stories from the animal control officers.
"The magnitude of this issue is getting bigger … and apparently, we're not getting the bad apples' attention enough, and I certainly don't want to put our animal control officers in a bad situation," Ford said at another recent workshop called to discuss issues with dog law enforcement.
Ford, a dog owner himself, had previously floated an idea to increase compliance he would later say he would never seriously consider: How about we publish the names of leash law offenders in the newspaper?
The publicity around the idea got people talking.
Some responded fiercely against the idea, mocking the councilman on social media.
Others began brainstorming other ways to address the issue, ways that did not involve public shaming.
The conversation is ongoing, and the public may soon have an opportunity to help shape the city's dog policy.
At the workshop, Police Chief Cory Christensen updated the council on the challenges he and his officers continue to face and offered other ideas.
There's the resistance and the running, he said.
"I don't think it's an education problem; I think it's a compliance problem," Christensen told the council. "I've been driving around a lot in this community, and I drive a really policey-looking unmarked car, and I have people diving. I had a lady almost turn inside out to dive behind a bush to put her little dog on a leash when she saw my car. That's not an education problem. That's a 'I know I'm not supposed to be doing this' (problem)."
Christensen's tale was followed by several other, more upsetting stories from the animal control officers themselves
They said they couldn't repeat some of the names they've been called in the community.
"It's terrible you guys have to go through this," Councilman Jason Lacy told the animal control officers. "Unfortunately, we could write thousands of pages of new laws, and you would still have some of these bad apples."
Christensen said it also is difficult to enforce leash laws in areas where city land turns to county land, then quickly back to city.
The police chief wants to update the city's codes in an attempt to increase enforcement.
He told council the city is working on an agreement with the Routt County Sheriff's Office which would allow city officers to write dog tickets on county land.
Fines also could be raised for tickets.
After hearing several stories of animal control officers being verbally abused, council issued a challenge to the community.
If you have a problem with the laws, don't take it out on our officers.
Come to us, and give us the earful about it, and suggest changes.
"Animals are almost like kids, and I keep telling (the dog owners) … if you've got an issue with this, it's not the folks who have been charged to enforce the rules, it's the legislative side, which is us," Ford said. "I struggle, guys, when our officers are verbally abused."
Collaborative, not punitive
Kathy Connell remembers when City Council adopted the latest version of the leash law.
She was sitting at the dais when there was a short debate as to whether the laws should also apply to cats.
Connell reminded her fellow policy makers she had not heard of too many aggressive cats running around.
The former council president said the law was mainly put in place to address a growing issue of dogs running at large in the community far from their owners.
Fast forward to today, and Connell said she's disappointed to see the city ramping up enforcement of leash laws and applying the law to dog owners who appear to have their canines under control off the leash.
While she feels dog owners who don't pick up the poop and who blatantly let their dogs run free and out of control do deserve to be visited by animal control officers, she said some of the recent enforcement appears to be an overreach.
"People here are getting more upset by the moment," she said. "There are some people who see this as a real overreach."
She said she'd rather see the city try to solve the issues of loose dogs and off-leash incidents that lead to conflicts by addressing shortage of facilities for dogs and collaborating with members of the canine-owning community.
The new enforcement efforts are alienating members of the passionate dog community and spurring residents to tell more "war stories" about interactions with police, Connell said.
Connell is also sympathetic to the animal control officers themselves.
"They are now being abused by people, and that's unfortunate," she said. "There's no excuse for that."
Connell is planning to launch an effort to see if she can engage the community and the residents who have the war stories and come up with a better solution.
"It's better to be collaborative instead of punitive," Connell said. "There's got to be a balance, and I think the extreme is wrong. Steamboat is different than a big city, and I think we need to work collaboratively."
For example, she said she doesn't feel she should have to fear being cited when she takes her dog under voice and sight control to her neighbors' house three doors down to visit another family and a dog.
She also touted the efforts of a man in the Whistler Park neighborhood who has taken it upon himself to be the de facto dog poop police.
Connell said if she were on City Council today, she would call for a community meeting at which dog owners could offer their own ideas for how to address the issue and increase compliance without the city issuing more tickets.
"We're alienating a huge population here in Steamboat with this Denver-level enforcement," she said. "I want to lead a plan where we can really start to look at this, and meanwhile, let's not have our dog enforcement have to play 'gotcha.'"
‘Just my job’
"We've got a pooper," Amatuzio exclaimed as she slowly drove up the Spring Creek Road on Wednesday for a routine patrol.
The owner of the small dog got a thumbs up after she pulled out a bag to retrieve the animal droppings, sparing other walkers, bikers and hikers from the sight.
"When we patrol, we're looking for everything from animals in distress to animals at large to animals off leash, and of course, to enforce the laws that are mandated by our city council and to make sure the animals are safe in our county," Amatuzio said.
The officer's days aren't always this routine, however.
A week ago, a black lab was playing with its family at a local condominium complex when the dog ventured into a dark, narrow culvert and forgot how to back out of it.
The dog was in there an hour in ankle-deep, cold water before Amatuzio came to the rescue.
The animal control officer didn't think twice about squeezing into the other end of the 60-foot-long culvert and crawling all the way through to free the trapped canine.
On Wednesday, Amatuzio juggled her routine patrols with interviews from two TV news stations.
They made it seem as though she was a hero.
Amatuzio said she was simply doing her job.
"I love it, because I'm not sitting behind a desk," she said as she patrolled a neighborhood off Whistler Road.
"I enjoy that every day is not the same; every day is completely different."
A former police officer, Amatuzio said she enjoys protecting animals that don't have a voice and can't protect themselves.
"When it comes to protecting the animal, it's our job to be there," she said.
"I would say the majority of the people we meet are pretty great. They understand why we exist."