OTTUMWA — Some had seen enough from past history to know where they stood, and others broke down at the podium before getting much of a word out.

As expected, there was no shortage of passion. Or questions.

When a dozen residents voiced their opinion regarding the city's breed-specific ban against pit bulls as "dangerous animals" at Tuesday's Ottumwa City Council meeting, emotions ran the gamut. Many voiced support for the breed and claimed discrimination in the language of the ordinance.

Simply, the beginning stages of a difficult and sensitive challenge unfolded inside council chambers at City Hall.

"What this ban doesn't do is keep the dogs out of our community," said resident Melissa Childs, a professional dog trainer for over 11 years. "They do live in hiding, so they aren't legally allowed to attend my training classes because they're within the city limits.

"In order to enforce the ban, we have to have an agreed-upon way of identifying that breed," she added. "Even as professionals, we are so far from being able to do that."

Pit bulls are classified under a variety of different breeds, but main breeds include the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bulldog and Staffordshire Bull Terrier; only the American Pit Bull Terrier is unrecognized by the American Kennel Club.

Jeff Williams, a community service officer with the Ottumwa Police Department, discussed the process from the time he receives a complaint about a potential pit bull to the removal of the dog. It's a long process that aims to be as thorough as possible.

However, he begins his process simply by looking at the dog, and doesn't use photographs to compare.

"So I will go to the house and they'll show me the dog, and it's not a pit bull. That happens a lot," Williams said. "A lot of times people are truthful and they'll tell me what it is. Sometimes they lie and make up a story, or they'll say, 'I know we're not supposed to have them, but it's just a nice dog.' Then I explain what the law is, and have that conversation that the dog has to be removed.

"I usually work with them because I'm a dog owner too. I love animals and that's one reason I do this position. I understand the family part of it," he said. "So it's tough to tell someone you have to get rid of your dog, but I work with them to try to get their dog outside the city limits to like a family member so the dog is still theirs."

He also said he'll issue a citation and give the owners three to five days to get rid of the dog, and does a recheck so an owner hasn't brought the dog back into city limits. 

Williams further discussed when there is a conflict, or a he-said, she-said instance, he asks the owner to take the dog to a veterinarian for an identification check, which the city pays for.

However, the city has paid for DNA testing from an independent lab to confirm a pit bull. Usually that has happened when both Williams and the vet say it's a pit bull, but the owner claims otherwise. If the bloodwork confirms a pit bull, the owner pays the DNA fine (about $200), the citation for a small misdemeanor for having the dog ($100) and court costs. If not, the city pays the DNA cost as well.

Laryssa Droz, however, wasn't totally convinced. As a pit bull owner who has taken her dog to the vet, she hasn't seen the vet touch the dog.

"When I've taken my dog to the vet, I've seen him pull up images of a pit bull on Google. I'm not really sure how realistic that is to use that as a comparison," she said. "I've had my dog for 7 1/2 years, and it goes to the vet routinely, and not once has it ran loose or been vicious."

Droz also said that because "there's 20 different breeds or more that are misidentified as pit bulls," those dogs "would also qualify in the dog ban because they have the characteristics."

Felisha Morrow's situation is one of the main complications of the ordinance. She owns a pit bull, but lives just outside city limits along the Des Moines River. However, when there is flooding or freezing weather, she has to come into city limits and doesn't abandon the dog.

"I hate being scared that my dog can't even go outside just because he might be seen," she said. "It's unfair that pit bulls get discriminated against. This is my hometown and I was born and raised here. But I can't feel safe or comfortable going into it with my dog. I can't move back into town with the dog I rescued due to this ban."

Shannon Murphy has a pit bull as a service dog, and she brought it to the meeting. It's the fourth pit bull she's owned. She also explained past incidents of dog bites — none from pit bulls — her family has faced.

"I just think it's time it needs to be about a 'dangerous animal,' and if anybody's that worried about it, require people to carry renters' or homeowners' insurance, a rider on their policy," she said. "Maybe that's a good solution. I just think they're great dogs, and we already have them in this town."

Other residents explained negative experiences. Tonya Simonson said her 120-pound Siberian Husky was killed by a neighboring pit bull, and claimed the owners "were shocked" because there were no prior issues.

"A Chihuahua doesn't do that," she said.

Marcia McDaniel, who has spearheaded the effort to overturn the ban, said visualization needs to stop becoming a determining factor in what is and isn't a pit bull.

"It's time the council sees the failures of the pit bull ban and gets busy to reverse it to include all breeds," she said. "Ottumwa's ordinance actually gives the community a false sense of security as it does not keep the breed out of the city. It only eliminates these dogs from the experiences they need to eliminate the aggression." 

Keith Caviness, a former council member who was on the council when the ordinance went into effect, believes the law is just.

"One of those instances is enough in a lifetime," he said of a 2002 incident that prompted the ordinance. "When our law enforcement people go into a home to search for drugs or whatever, the first thing those people usually have at their front door is a pit bull. They know they can keep the police at bay while they dispose of illegal drugs.

"I know there are a lot of people that disagree and want to talk about all the different breeds of pit bulls, but the bottom line is, we need to keep our city, our law enforcement and our people safe."

City administrator Philip Rath said the city's code is "fairly sound" in most areas, but that this legislation leaves room to be changed.

"We could be looking at some kind of language or exemption for service animals. That's one thing I'd say that our code is lacking compared to other strong codes," he said. "If we're looking at removing breed-specific language as an option, and putting more into the owner, and how the animal is treated, I think there's some room for that."

Council member Marc Roe was sympathetic to both sides, but he was also concerned about the fallout that would result from any change. If the city does decide to go in a different direction, it will be the third time in six years it has changed its animal ordinance.

"I fully agree that pit bulls are fantastic animals and it's nurture, not nature," Roe said. "Several of those animals turn out to be a beautiful dog. But, for every one of you that are here tonight, there's at least one person that's absolutely vehemently opposed to lifting this ban.

"Just understand the hesitancy of the people making this decision because it's us that are going to have to suffer the consequences of lifting the ban and four days later a child dies as a result of it."

Roe said the council realizes pit bulls exist in the city, and that raising them properly means increased socialization. He said there are good dog owners in the community, but owners who aren't as well.

"If we're going to make a change, going to change the enforcement a third time, we have to have some sort of guarantee that if something does go bump in the night, that we're actually going to be able to take care of the problem," he said. "It's very clear that the current legislation doesn't work. It has to be something we can actually enforce, and I know the police department is a part of that puzzle and the Wapello County Attorney's Office is a piece of that puzzle as well.

"The changes have to make the lives of all the animals better," he said. "If we're going to do this a third time, it needs to be done correctly this time."

— Chad Drury can be reached at cdrury@ottumwacourier.com, and on Twitter @ChadDrury

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