Dabney: Pets Rule, Owners Drool

By Attorney PHILIP J. DABNEY
Reid Griffith Law Firm

You’ve probably seen a favorite gag scene of mine in the movies.

This one comes from a 1976 flick, The Pink Panther Strikes Again. Inspector Clouseau checks into a Swiss hotel, then sees a dog sitting on the floor. He asks the clerk, “Does your dog bite?” The clerk responds in the negative. Clouseau reaches down to pet the dog, and the dog viciously attacks his gloved hand!

“I thought you said your dog did not bite!”
“That is not my dog…”

Had the scene arisen in Los Alamos, the dog would have been impounded for 10 days by the Los Alamos animal control officer. The owner of the dog likely would have been cited for menacing, if he or she could be located. And if the dog was not displaying a rabies tag, the owner would be facing a second citation.

Like most small communities in this country, Los Alamos encourages pet ownership but requires that pet owners follow certain rules to maintain order and good animal care and health.

Dogs and cats are considered acceptable domestic animals under county ordinance. So are rabbits, birds, reptiles, fish and rodents commonly sold as domestic pets.

You can have as many domestic pets as you can humanely and sanitarily care for in your home. Skunks are NOT acceptable as domestic animals! Neither are any other wild or exotic animals.

Livestock may not be kept at your home, except in agriculturally zoned areas. The exception to this limitation is for chickens. Up to ten chickens can be kept as domestic animals with certain restrictions intended to minimize noise, odors and unsanitary conditions.

Chickens do NOT include roosters, which are forbidden as domestic pets. Otherwise we all would be up  before the crack of dawn whenever the rooster crows!

If you have pets, county ordinances require you to keep your property clean of excrement. If it accumulates and neighbors complain about the smell, you could be cited and fined, even jailed up to 90 days if the problem is serious and repeated. The ordinance applies to indoors as well. Keep your litter boxes and hampster cages clean!

Your pets are free to roam your property. However, they are not free to roam the neighborhood and town. If you are off property with your pet (typically dogs, but owners have been known to walk their cats) you must keep the pet on a leash. There are two exceptions to this rule.

On some trails designated by the county you can keep up to two of your pets off leash as long as the animals are in your site and control. If off leash, the pets must behave and not attack or bother other people or animals.

Also, there are two dog parks in the county, one at East Park in Los Alamos and one at Overlook Park in White Rock. Dogs do not have to be leashed within the dog park but they still must behave with other dogs and people.

All dogs and cats living in the county must be vaccinated for rabies and must have their rabies tags displayed, especially if they are off your property.

Pet ownership most often comes into conflict with others when the owners fail to keep their pets under control. Barking dogs often cause neighbor disputes that must be resolved by the County. If you allow your dogs to bark late at night and in ways that annoy your neighbors, expect a visit from either an angry neighbor or an animal control officer after being called by an angry neighbor.

If you are found to have allowed excessive noise by your pets, you could be cited and fined. For neighbors who like to stir up trouble, keep in mind that a defense to a charge of excessive barking is that the animal was provoked into barking or making other noises.

If there is a bona fide dispute between neighbors about the noise made by domestic animals, the county can provide mediators to help resolve the dispute. Contact the Animal Shelter at 662-8179 for more information.

It should go without saying that abusing any animal is considered a crime under county ordinance. Animal cruelty is broadly defined, and includes physical abuse; failure to provide food, water and veterinary care; and exposure to extreme heat or cold.

For those of you who want to punish the owners of problem animals by punishing  the animals, poisoning, taunting, harassing, kicking, shooting or other unprovoked assaults on the pets is illegal. Doing the same to the owner of the pet also would be a crime. The best approach to disputes involving animals is to seek a friendly resolution. If that cannot be accomplished, call the authorities and let them deal with the problem.

Remember, the animal typically is not at fault for whatever is going on. The human has the obligation to train and properly care for the animal.

In some cases, domestic pet issues can go beyond the police and animal control involvement and into the world of civil lawsuits. What do you do if your pet bites or otherwise attacks another human or someone else pet, causing injury to the person or pet?

 It is possible you will get sued for damages — medical bills, pain and suffering and the like.

If you get a letter from a lawyer or notice of a civil lawsuit, you should immediately contact your insurance carrier and give the carrier whatever documents you received. Which insurance? Any insurance!

If you have homeowners or renters insurance, that would be the first place to contact, even if the bite or attack occurred someplace else.

Also, if you have automobile insurance, that would be the second place to go with this information. Most folks get all their insurance through a local agent. That may be the best place to go to find out who to contact when something like this arises.

What should happen next is the insurance company will have an adjuster contact you and interview you about the incident. The insurance company then may hire an attorney to represent you in defense of the claim or suit. It also is possible you will receive a letter from the insurance carrier.

The letter may completely deny the claim and refuse any coverage or defense. If that happens, you should contact an attorney to get advice on what to do next. Doing nothing is not a good option, especially if a lawsuit already is underway.

Instead of denying coverage, the insurance company might send you a “reservation of rights” letter, where the insurance company says it is investigating whether coverage exists but will continue to provide an attorney to defend the claim for the time being.

While you could hire an attorney when you receive a “reservation of rights letter,” it may be prudent and less expensive to let the civil dispute proceed further first.

The dispute may get resolved before the insurance company decides to reject coverage. Just keep in mind that the attorney hired by the insurance company to represent you likely will not provide you with legal advice about how to fight your insurance company.

Generally speaking, liability for dog bites depends on what the owner knew or should have known about the dog. If there is a history of biting, there is knowledge that might make you liable for damages to a victim of the bite.

The facts of each case will dictate the outcome, so provide your defense attorney all the history and information you have about the dog and the incident.

The best approach is to not let your dog bite!

A final comment about wild animals. If you encounter bears, lions, raccoons or deer in your yard and need assistance to relocate them, you can call New Mexico Game and Fish in Santa Fe at 505.476.8000 for assistance.

If you encounter skunks or coyotes and need assistance, you likely will need to contact a private contractor for assistance, as they are not protected animals. You also will need skunk shampoo for your domestic animal — we know from personal experience there is nothing more exhilarating than bathing a skunk-sprayed dog at 3 a.m.!

Special thanks to Los Alamos Animal Control for providing helpful information for this column!

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