California city tries to limit number of dogs citizens may own

Although August is long past, these are dog days for citizens of Union City, Calif. A proposal to restrict the number of dogs per household has sparked heated debate in this community, situated across the bay and 30 miles south of San Francisco. Joining a national trend toward tighter animal-control laws, the City Council was on the verge of mandating a two-dog limit.

But protests from animal aficionados like Paula Goodman, who owns three Russian wolfhounds, this week convinced the council to withdraw the ordinance -- at least for now.

``It's not the number of pets that matters -- it could be one or eight. It's whether or not the owners are responsible,'' Ms. Goodman says, noting the city already has a leash law and a barking-dog ordinance.

She has the backing of the Southern Alameda County Humane Society, which is concerned that local shelters will not be able to find homes for the dogs that would be turned in as a result of the two-dog limit.

In the end, the humane society offered to sponsor campaigns to publicize existing animal-control laws. And it pledged to work with local police in handling animal-related complaints, a move that persuaded the council to postpone consideration of the two-dog limit until July.

But the age-old issue of how to strike a balance between an individual's freedom and a society's needs remains.

``Not every animal lover should have to suffer for the irresponsible actions of a few,'' says local humane society president Donna Mayberry.

Union City Police Chief Michael Manick, on the other hand, says he strongly believes in ``the right of the municipality to set regulations that contribute to the peace and tranquillity of its residents.'' He is pleased, however, with the new compromise, which will supplement the work of his one full-time animal-control officer.

The two-dog limit was proposed in response to numerous citizen complaints about odors, incessant barking, and dogs on the loose.

Phil Arkow, former executive secretary of the National Animal Control Association, says a two-dog limit ``seems a little repressive.'' Of communities that have such a law, the national average is to limit the number of pets to three or four, he says.

He also noted that regulations banning dogs from town houses and condominiums increase the popularity of cats. ``In focusing on animal control, the problem may, in fact, be cats,'' he says. ``But no one says anything about that in Union City or in most other towns.''

Union City's two-dog proposal, however, contained at least one element that drew Mr. Arkow's praise: a provision to allow residents who own more than two dogs to apply for a special permit. Some cities in southern California may soon require permits, rather than licenses, for all dogs, he says. ``With a permit, such as one to drive a motorcycle, you must demonstrate responsibility,'' Arkow says. And, he notes, a permit can be revoked, if the holder acts irresponsibly.

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