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Council continues due diligence on dog ordinance

Estherville City Council

April 20, 2019
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer ( , Estherville News

City sends letter to White House while awaiting clarification from FHA on emotional support animals

By Amy H. Peterson

Staff Writer

The Estherville mayor and city council members at Monday's council meeting signed a letter addressed to U.S. President Donald Trump requesting assistance "involving the lack of federal regulation for emotional support animals under the Fair Housing Act (FHA)."

In September, the city council wrote to U.S. Rep. Steve King requesting guidance. King's office contacted the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development but received no response. Council member Julie Clark said King's legislative director suggested writing to the White House. City attorney Jennifer Bennett-Finn wrote the letter.

In the letter, the council described a lawsuit against the city, which was filed by a dog owner who claimed the city's long-standing dangerous animal ordinance could not be applied to him because his Pit Bull/Labrador mix was his emotional support animal. The dog owner, a veteran living with PTSD, provided medical documentation. However, the dog did not have special training to assist the dog owner with his anxiety and depression as a service dog would, and hence is not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city's insurance company paid out approximately $23,000 to settle the case and as a condition of the settlement, the dog was subsequently treated like any other dog in Estherville until the owner moved out of state.

Fact Box

"There are many cities that have a pit bull ban to protect their citizens. However, when a dog owner can claim that the pit bull is his or her emotional support animal, it becomes practically impossible for local jurisdictions to enforce dangerous animal ordinances."

-City's letter to President Trump

The city council's letter points out, "There are many cities that have a pit bull ban to protect their citizens. However, when a dog owner can claim that the pit bull is his or her emotional support animal, it becomes practically impossible for local jurisdictions to enforce dangerous animal ordinances."

Before seeking guidance, a committee of some city council members and staff drafted a bill that would prohibit other breeds as well as pit-bull types, including Dobermans, Akitas, and Rottweilers. During the many public hearings about the dangerous animal ordinance, supporters of specific dogs then living in Estherville, and representatives from the state ASPCA, provided to the city council examples of breed-neutral city ordinances other cities are using, which would have required a greater level of owner responsibility for every dog than now exists in Estherville's city laws.

Over 700 U.S. cities have breed-specific bans. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Centers for Disease Control, after a study on dog bites, have both weighed in strongly against breed-specific legislation, favoring breed-neutral ordinances, which their studies have shown to greatly reduce repeat dog aggression incidents in the cities that are breed-neutral.

In 2017, the USA death count from pit bull-related breeds was 29 direct deaths plus nine additional deaths in which an attack from a pit bull-related breed was a contributing cause of death (e.g. a man fought off a pit bull attack and died of a heart attack the same day).

Kenneth Phillips, the attorney who created the video called "Do Not Adopt a Pit Bull," which was styled as a Super Bowl commercial with a crowd going wild over a score of 29-0, but revealed that 29 was the number of Americans killed by pit bull-related breeds in 2017, once opposed breed bans but now advocates for the complete elimination of pit bulls. Phillips earns his living by exclusively representing people who have been injured by dog bites or attacks, or the families of people who died from injuries related to dog bites or attacks.

Phillips said, "For the past 20 years, I trusted that pit bull lovers would do what the Doberman and Rottweiler fanciers did, which was to breed the violence out of their dogsI supported restrictions on who could own pit bulls and how they had to be maintained (meaning how they should be treated and what precautions to take around them.)"

Phillips' conversion to opposing pit bull-related breeds came when the fanciers of these breeds, in Phillips' opinion, failed to take measures to breed the violence out of the dogs, bred millions of unwanted dogs per year which had to be euthanized, and maintained a campaign of what Phillips says is misinformation about the dogs.

"It's not the case that every pit bull is vicious, of course, but that every one of them presents an intolerable risk of a person or pet's death, disfigurement, or disability. Intolerable risk is why we have all but banned tobacco smoking even though only a small percentage of people die from itintolerable risk is why products are recalled even when just a few children or adults are killed by them," Phillips said.

HUD has been at work for the past year on administrative guidance to assist in the interpretation of the FHA. As of last month, HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan said the agency is circulating the proposed guidance among other relevant agencies, including the U.S. Dept. of Justice, for review. When that is done, HUD will submit it to the Office of Management and Budget for approval. No timeline for this process has been published as of press time.

State laws in 24 states have addressed the misrepresentation of pets as service animals. Mental health and veterans advocates worry that further restrictions from the federal government would stigmatize people with trauma and mental illness who are seeking legitimate uses of emotional support animals, and deter individuals with a legitimate need from seeking help.

The letter, which included a second page for the signatures of the mayor and council, closed by saying, "We are only trying to look out for the safety of local citizens."



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