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City law open-ended on animal neglect, cruelty

Winter's cold temperatures have some Mitchell residents concerned for local pets left tied outside.

"It's just really sad, because the poor animals don't get taken care of," said Christina Stanley, of Mitchell, referencing a number of dogs she has seen tied outside in the city.

She recalled a night several weeks ago when the wind chill in Mitchell dropped well below zero and she saw dogs tied outside as late as 10 p.m.

John Parker, Mitchell's only full-time animal control officer, said he deals with complaints of animal neglect on a daily basis, but he can only ensure the animals are taken care of, given food and water, and that all laws are being followed.

Parker said he or another police officer had been out to see the dogs Stanley referenced multiple times in the last week to 10 days.

"I probably wouldn't do that to my animals, but different people handle them in different ways," Parker said. "As far as a violation of the law, there is none."

He said the dogs had adequate food and water, and blankets on which to lie. However, Parker did say leaving an animal outside for extended periods of time without protection may be considered neglect, depending on the type of animal or breed of dog.

There are city ordinances and state laws regarding animal neglect and animal cruelty.

The city ordinance states "No person shall willfully or negligently maltreat, abuse, or neglect, in a cruel or inhumane manner, any animal or fowl." The city ordinance does not go on to specifically say what constitutes maltreatment, abuse or neglect.

A state law defines neglect of an animal as the failure to "provide food, water, protection from the elements, adequate sanitation, adequate facilities, or care generally considered to be standard and accepted for an animal's health and well-being consistent with the species, breed, physical condition, and type of animal."

Parker said deciding what constitutes "protection from the elements" is done on a case-by-case basis.

"Normally, the officer dealing with it is going to have to make that determination, because there is nothing in plain black-and-white in the law," Parker said. "Everybody has an opinion of what neglect is, and unless it can be fit within the statute in some way, it's not a chargeable offense."

Parker said he determines whether neglect is taking place based on the breed of dog and the specifics of the situation.

"If they're used to being out in the cold, there is no reason they can't be," he said. "If they have a medical problem, then it's another story."

Some may see the city ordinance as too open-ended, but Parker said it's helpful for officers to be able to act on their own discretion.

"The way (the law is) drawn now, it gives us a little bit of leeway to make a determination," he said, adding that all the decisions he makes could eventually be challenged and decided in court.

"You charge and investigate what you feel a reasonable and prudent human being would decide on," Parker said. "You can't make a decision unless you have all the factors involved and you're the one on the spot seeing it."

Mitchell City Council President Jeff Smith said he'd be open to examining the city's ordinance and considering changes.

"You can't govern everything, obviously, but we definitely want the safety of animals to be part of what we feel is important," he said.

Smith said he would be open to suggestions from residents or adopting ideas from other cities that might make sense for Mitchell.

"I'm a little hesitant of how you could go about doing it in a way that is fair for everyone and every species of animal," Smith said. "You hope the common sense of the pet owners will come through, but what some people view as neglect, others view as fine."

Smith agreed with Parker that handling each incident on a case-by-case basis is the best approach.

Under the city ordinance, animal neglect is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

If an officer chooses to enforce the state law instead of the city ordinance, which Parker said is done depending on the details of each case, the offense can be charged as a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

South Dakota State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven said the state will usually defer to local authorities to enforce their own ordinances regarding non-livestock animals.

In contrast, the state Animal Industry Board is responsible for administering complaints of neglect or cruelty against livestock.