After a Hawaiian Acres woman was attacked by unrestrained dogs in October, a Hawaii County Council committee will look into ways to improve the county’s animal control laws.
Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder requested that Hawaii Island Humane Society CEO Charles Brown attend today’s meeting of the Committee on Public Safety and discuss the county’s policies for responding to animal attacks and how they can be changed to provide better enforcement.
In particular, Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said he thinks the county and Humane Society could do more to prevent aggressive dogs from attacking people.
“There’s a lot of questions in the community regarding who you call if you get bit by a dog,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said. “I’m hoping we can develop something that clarifies how the county deals with these things and maybe make it work better.”
Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder’s request was partly precipitated by an incident that took place Oct. 15, when a 73-year-old Hawaiian Acres woman was attacked by three loose dogs while walking her own dog.
“I’ve never been more scared in my life as I was that day,” said Margaret Bartelt, a retired Child Protective Services social worker. “There was a pitbull on my left, a pitbull on my right, just biting at me.”
The dogs chased Bartelt into overgrowth on the edge of a Hawaiian Acres road and tore at her arms and legs for “about 10 minutes,” she said, until they seemingly lost interest. Bartelt was able to call the police, and was assisted by neighbors, who heard her screaming, until officers arrived.
Bartelt said she needed 10 stitches on one arm and had further open wounds on one leg after the attack. Her dog had no external injuries, she said, but required painkillers after being jostled and tugged about.
On Oct. 28, a Hawaiian Acres resident reported seeing the dogs again in the same area.
“We have kids who get out of the bus over there in that same place,” Bartelt said.
Bartelt said the dogs are known to belong to a resident in the area, but even though police visited that resident after the attack, nothing was done to potentially prevent further attacks. The police called the Humane Society two days after the incident, but that agency has no authority to seize dangerous animals.
The Humane Society is charged with addressing animal-on-animal attacks, Brown said, while animal-on-human attacks are the domain of police.
“The ordinances we have are, I’ll be honest, outdated,” Brown said. “There’s not a lot of ‘oomph’ behind our laws.”
Other municipalities throughout the country have stronger animal control laws that lend far more power to animal control officers. Brown said he prefers the system that requires the least amount of force, but laws that would operate on a strike system for offending dog owners, or a law to update the county’s definition of a dangerous dog to include “potentially dangerous dogs” would go a long way.
As current laws stand, Brown said his Humane Society officers can only issue civil forfeitures, which are often laughably inadequate — for example, the penalty for intentionally injuring or poisoning a dog is only $10.
“There’s a lot of ‘mays’ in our county code,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said. “An officer ‘may’ do this, the county ‘may’ do this, but there’s not a lot of ‘shalls.’ Let’s try to get some more ‘shalls’ in there.”
Until then, dangerous dogs will continue to be a problem in places such as Hawaiian Acres.
“I was told that those dogs will only attack people who have their own dogs with them,” Bartelt said. “And I thought, ‘So?’ I should be allowed to walk on a public road with my dog. I shouldn’t have to leave my dog at home just to not get attacked.”
The Committee on Public Safety meets at 9 a.m. today at the Hawaii County Building in Hilo.
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.