Nate Monroe / Houma Courier
Sweeping changes to Terrebonne Parish's animal-control laws set tougher standards for vicious animals and their owners though it does not single out any specific breeds.
The changes, debated and discussed for nearly a year, passed unanimously at Thursday night's council meeting. Several residents and local activists spoke in favor of the changes before the vote.'This law is not perfect,' Councilman Kevin Voisin said, 'but it's a huge step forward on dangerous animals.'Councilman Billy Hebert had previously singled out pit bulls and pit mixes for their ability to inflict severe injury, pointing out the mauling of a 4-year-old Houma boy in January and a separate attack on an 18-year-old in February. But he said he was swayed during the past nine months of debate away from a vicious-animal law that singled out specific breeds.'We needed one for all breeds,' he said.The new law is stricter and more specific than the state's vicious dog law, which the parish had been using.The state defines a dog as vicious if it displays two incidents of aggression that prompt a defensive action, such as running away or fighting it off with a purse. The dog and its owner are then sent to local court for a hearing. There, an owner can try to defend the dog, surrender it to animal-control officers or, if a judge deems necessary, be punished with fines.Under the changes adopted Thursday, a dangerous dog is one that meets one of three criteria:-Engages in any behavior that requires a defensive action when the person and the dog are off the property of the dog's owner.-Bites and severely injures anyone on or off the owner's property.-Bites and severely injures or kills any other animal on or off the owner's property.If the dog is found to be dangerous, the owner will have to follow several regulations to retain ownership, such as muzzling the dog when its off the owner's property and obtaining a dangerous-dog license.Vicious dogs are ones that, unprovoked, aggressively attack and kill or cause severe injury to a person on or off the owner's property or that is involved in any attack after previously being labeled a dangerous dog.All vicious dogs will be killed by an animal-control officer, and the owner can be banned from owning dogs in the future.Anyone caught owning a vicious dog will face a fine of up to $500.The new law also gives parish animal-control officers police powers once they pass a training program established by the Louisiana Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. That means they will have the ability to investigate and issue citations and summons for animal-related crimes, such as neglect and abuse, and carry a firearm.'We're not going to put unqualified people out there,' Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet said.State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell issued an opinion to the parish that only two animal-control officers can use such powers. The shelter has three animal-control officers.'This gives them the legal tools they need,' Councilwoman Teri Cavalier said.All fines for animal-related crimes will be directed to the animal shelter rather than the Terrebonne Sheriff's Office. Animal Shelter Manager Valerie Robinson said there are no estimates or projections for fine collections.'Anything that our parish can do to help prevent these situations or anything the parish can do to put a stop to abuse and neglect is always a step in the right direction,' said Kaya Eschete, a local animal rescuer.In other action, the council unanimously approved parish government's $196 million spending plan for next year.The budget is about $2 million larger than last year.The budget includes raises for most of the parish's 1,000 employees at a cost of about $850,000 per year and $5.8 million in new drainage, building, road-and-bridge, recreation, public services and coastal-restoration projects and programs.Among the projects budgeted next year is a long-discussed proposal to build a skate park in Houma. The budget includes $130,000 to get those plans started next year.