Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXXV): If a tree falls in the forest ...

An old saying queries, "if a tree falls in the forest and no on hears it, does it make a noise?" A law and order analogy to this adage might be, "If a law is on the books, but no one enforces it, is it a law?" I was reminded of this reality recently by an editorial in my hometown newspaper, the Newton County Times (August 17, 2011). The editorial was cleverly titled, "It's time to bite the dogs." It's a play on the old newspaper phrase, "Man bites dog," which is often used as a metaphor for an "unusual, infrequent event that is more likely to be reported as news than an ordinary occurrence (such as dog bites man)."

The editorial tells of a recent dog-bite incident in Jasper--a dog of unknown origin bit a girl in the face, requiring stitches in her lip and nose. The girl's parents, the editorial reports, intend to attend the next City Council meeting to draw attention to the incident, ask the community for support, and explore what can be done to prevent similar incidents in the future. According to a letter to the editor by the girl's parents, the city of Jasper has a 20-year-old leash law, but it has never been enforced. According to Police Chief Pete DeChant the city has only a "policy" of requiring dogs to be leashed in Bradley Park, though no provision is made for its enforcement. Whatever the state of written law, the editorial notes that neither Jasper nor Newton County has an animal control division in its law enforcement--which isn't terribly surprising given that the city doesn't even have an officer on duty round the clock, and the sheriff's office is stretched to cover the entire county.

The editorial nevertheless calls for more attention--and resources--to animal control. Acknowledging the cost of training and paying people to enforce animal control laws--assuming an enforceable ordinance were passed--the editor nevertheless calls for a change in "attitude ...for the health and safety of our community." I was heartened to read in his column of the prior efforts to address these issues. Among these is the work of a non-profit group, Newton County Animal Services, which seeks animal control solutions. Among other things, it has advocated spaying and neutering. The group has sought the assistance of the Quorum Court in the past--seeking a donation of land where a clinic could be built to accommodate visiting veterinarians to provide these services. To date, the Quorum Court has only permitted the group to use fairgrounds facilities for these low cost clinics, which are held a couple of times a year and also provide rabies vaccination services. Residents concerned about roaming dogs attacking their pets have met with the prosecuting attorney and sheriff, going so far as to present laws other communities have adopted to deal with such animal control issues. Still, public officials have failed to take the proverbial bull by the horns--presumably because these issues are seen as a low priority.

Consideration of these events and challenges in the context of impoverished, sparsely populated Newton County, population 8,311, makes me wonder if local officials essentially cede animal control to the "informal order" often associated with rural communities. Of course, to some extent, law enforcement must also cede many other issues that implicate human welfare (like drug manufacture and myriad other crimes) to informal order because money and space so limit what they can do. It is also a reminder of a service that city dwellers may take for granted, but about which rural residents can only dream. Link

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