10/03/07 — Residents upset over proposed fees on animals in Duplin

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Residents upset over proposed fees on animals in Duplin

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 3, 2007 2:02 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- Hunters and pet owners from across Duplin County converged on the Oak Wolfe Fire Station outside of Mount Olive Monday night -- some because they didn't like the idea of being hit with another tax and some because they didn't appreciate being told what they could and couldn't do with their animals.

Still others voiced concerns about Duplin County being used as a pawn in the Humane Society of the United States' latest effort to advance its agenda.

But regardless of what specifically motivated the nearly 100 residents, the bottom line was that almost every single one of them was against the Duplin County Board of Commissioners' proposed animal control ordinance.

And, according to the commissioners, those opinions have been about the same at all three of the earlier public meetings. A fifth and final one is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Warsaw Town Hall on Thursday.

At issue is a proposed animal control ordinance, which was written by a small animal advisory committee.

The goal of the ordinance, explained Humane Society of Duplin County President Ken Rau, is three-fold -- create an animal licensure program, create a database for all domestic animals (defined as cats and dogs) and improve upon the number of animals vaccinated against rabies.

It also would address such issues as dangerous animals, strays and cases of abandonment.

Currently, he explained, there is nothing directing Duplin's animal control officers other than the general guidelines of state law.

And so, added Commissioner L.S. Guy, with 16 cases of rabies already reported in Duplin County since January -- eight in dogs -- and several recent cases of people being attacked by dogs, including one four-year-old boy bit in the face requiring 50 stitches, the need for such an ordinance is clear.

But, county Manager Mike Aldridge also explained that a need for funds also motivated the idea of the animal control ordinance.

"Two years ago, the county was strapped for funding and considered a means of imposing a fee on cats and dogs," he said.

The reason, Guy continued, was because they had been ordered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make improvements to the animal shelter and needed a way to fund it.

However, before the tax could be imposed, it was decided that a comprehensive ordinance was needed.

Under the new regulations, the $5-per-pet fee would be collected by the county veterinarians at the time rabies shots are given. Owners of hunting kennels would be divided into brackets based on their number of dogs and then charged for the minimum number.

The money would then go back into the animal control program, which costs about $125,000 a year.

"It puts the burden of running the animal shelter on the backs of animal owners," Rau said.

But that's exactly the problem many had with the idea.

"We're putting a lot of revenue back in this county already," said Chris Alphin of Potter's Hill, vice president of the Duplin-Onslow Hunters Association.

He explained that his and other hunting organizations already make donations to schools, offer scholarships, offer free hunting classes, host hunts that bring in out-of-town visitors and spend a lot of money in local stores on pet supplies.

"We don't need (another) tax or somebody checking up on our animals," he said.

Besides, added J.D. Sessoms of Faison, "The people who (animal control) is having trouble with dogs, are the people who will never register their dogs and will never get a rabies shot, but it's us who will wind up paying the bills."

Some vets in the county have even refused to collect the fees.

"I'm not going to be a tax collector for Duplin County," said Dr. Joel Borden, a vet in Teachey. "I'll step across the Pender County line and vaccinate them all."

Others expressed concern that the fee might discourage pet owners from even getting dogs and cats vaccinated to begin with.

"We have one of the best rabies programs in the state. Ask anybody," Alphin said. "Why mess with something if it ain't broke."

But that's not their only concern.

Others are worried about their hunting dogs being picked up for running loose, as well as their dogs being considered dangerous if they scare somebody during a hunt.

Both, though, were concerns that Rau tried to assure them were addressed.

"I spent a lot of time on this. There were a lot of attempts made to go through the ordinance and make it friendly to dog hunters," he said.

But the ordinance's opponents were still not satisfied.

Riled by Henri McCleese, a state lobbyist for the N.C. Sporting Dog Association, they also accused Rau of trying to change their whole way of life.

"This has nothing to do with the needs of Duplin County. It has a lot to do with the agenda of the Humane Society of the United State," she said. "It's about an animal rights agenda we do not want and do not need in Duplin County."

Such an ordinance, even though it specifically refers only to domestic animals, she continued, would give the Humane Society a foothold to begin fighting against hog and poultry farms as well.

But despite the hostility in the room toward the ordinance, there was a potential light at the end of the tunnel.

Many in the group did not seem to be completely opposed to having such a statute on Duplin's books -- just not the one before it Monday night.

"We are against this ordinance and we ask that you defeat it," said Frank Brown of Albertson, president of the Duplin County Coon Hunters Association. "We want you to go back to square one because the whole ordinance and process has been flawed from the beginning."

Their biggest point of contention, he continued, is that this ordinance was drafted without any input from the hunting and sporting dog community.

"I would like a seat on that committee," he said.

And to Commissioner Cary Turner, who, along with the rest of the commission in its regular meeting Monday morning, voted to reassure people that no decision would be made until all the public comments had been considered, that sounded like it might be the best way to go.

"I think the most constructive thing they said tonight was to scrap this and start over," he said. "I agree that would probably be the best way to go about this."