When Waneen Marks moved to the Key Peninsula earlier this summer, she was startled when on the first day out for a walk—to get some exercise—she was threatened by a dog on a public road in Vaughn. On the second day she was bitten by another dog, which resulted in punctured skin and a bruise. Since then, she says she has encountered as many as eight to 10 loose neighborhood dogs in one outing.

“I didn’t call (animal control) because I’m not trying to get people in trouble. I’m just trying to get some exercise. It would be nice to be able to walk without fear of attack of neighborhood dogs,” she said.

Mark’s experience is far from unique. Out of the 19,442 reports investigated by The Human Society for Tacoma and Pierce County in 2004, 4,781 were for aggressive dogs. It is against the law to allow a dog without a leash beyond a person’s property, and there are even laws against dogs that threaten people on a public sidewalk. While aggressive dogs are a priority for animal control officers in Pierce County, those officers are “spread very thin.”

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department took over animal control duties from the Humane Society at the beginning of 2005. While the Humane Society had eight officers in the field, the county only has three, with a fourth one to be hired soon.

“We’re not able to respond to all minor calls in a timely manner,” said Sgt. Ron Cox, supervisor of the newly created animal control unit with the sheriff’s office.

Cox said if it weren’t for the skilled animal control officers, the situation would be worse. “If they weren’t such quality people, we’d be in trouble,” he said. The Key Peninsula is perhaps lucky—one of those officers, Brian Bowman, is a local resident, and often responds to the local calls before heading off the peninsula during his shift.

The department will be requesting an increased budget for 2006 that would pay for an additional officer, which would allow for double coverage per shift. Pierce County Councilman Terry Lee said he was not aware of a request yet but that the council was very supportive of providing improved animal control services.

“The residents are still paying taxes. The community should still expect service regardless of who’s providing it,” said Tom Sayre, spokesman for the Pierce County Humane Society.

The Humane Society has provided animal control services under a contract with the county until 2005. The agency decided to discontinue those services in all counties beginning in 2006 in order to focus on animal welfare issues and education, he said. Injured, abused and abandoned animals will continue to be a priority, Sayre said, with a major focus on spaying and neutering.

“Pierce County has the worst overpopulation (of animals) in the state,” he said.

Much of the problem is due to people who don’t realize how much work animals, especially dogs, require.

“I think people need to realize dogs need love and emotional attachment. They take a lot of commitment,” said Maureen Gomez, who moved to Palmer Lake from San Francisco six months ago with husband Dan and dogs Griffin and Lily. They found Lily abandoned on a street about 10 years ago and adopted her.

The dog showed signs of abuse, and still has difficulties with loud noises, strangers, and sudden movements. But the couple said despite the fact it took a long time to help Lily overcome some of her fears, and the special care she’s needed, they can’t see giving her up. “All her good attributes outweigh the extra work,” Gomez said. “Her quirks are part of the deal.”

But not everyone shares the commitment the Gomezes have for Lily and Griffin. Last year, the Humane Society received more than 23,000 unwanted animals. “We have a serious problem in Pierce County,” Sayre said.

A big part of that is due to lack of spaying and neutering, he said, which is why the agency will focus on public education and outreach. The Humane Society will also continue to provide sheltering services to the county for the animals picked up by officers, but in 2006 the other remaining contract—for licensing—will also be transferred to the county and will be a function of the assessor’s office. After next year, the animal control unit may also become part of the assessor’s office.

Asked whether there would be a change in licensing fees once the shift occurs on Jan. 1, Lee said, “All fees in Pierce County are constantly being discussed. It’s always a work in progress.”

In the meantime, the animal control officers are “just trying to make do,” Cox said. And they try to respond as much as possible to the time-consuming nuisance calls, which usually involve disputes between neighbors about their dogs. Many neighbors, unlike Waneen Marks, do call about loud barking, loose dogs and other problems. As for Marks, she said she loves her new neighborhood and will continue walking, but encountering all the dogs doesn’t create a very welcoming feeling.

“We encounter several dogs that seem very aggressive,” she said. “Not knowing the animals, it’s kind of scary.”

Animal laws
According to information provided by the Humane Society, the following are some of the illegal activities involving pets:

—Dogs must be on leash at any time when they are off private property.

—Breeding dogs and cats for sale requires a kennel license.

—Female cats and dogs that are in heat must be confined in a secured enclosure such as a building unless the animal is used for planned breeding.

—It is against the law for dogs to chase vehicles on public roads or jump and threaten pedestrians on public sidewalks.

—Animals cannot be confined in a motor vehicle in excessive heat.

—It is illegal to sell, barter or transfer animals (like kittens) in a public area without a license.

For animal control problems, call the animal control officers at 798-PETS (voice mail); calls are answered based on priorities.

For low-cost mobile vaccination services, call 800-772-6361.

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