Being a desert border community, my home town has its share of problems with civil animal control. A recent proposal called for an ordinance limiting private dog ownership to four animals -- more would mandate licensing as a commercial kennel. Concern about numbers of animals may correctly draw attention to the problems of animal control, but it does not provide a solution.

It seems to me the issue is whether keeping of animals constitutes a violation of rights of any individual, or of animals themselves. The correct concerns are whether the animals are a public nuisance, a health hazard, a safety hazard, or are themselves abused. Ten clean, quiet, well-cared-for, well-behaved dogs are no violation of neighbors’ rights, even on a half-acre lot. One dirty, fertile, fence-jumping, garbage-slinging, cat-eating, kid-chomping howler is too many for a whole county, even if his owner has put a plum in every pocket in the County Court House, and has his license sewn into the seat of his pants.

Proponents of that ordinance justified their actions by saying, "Nobody needs more than four pets." Maybe it is true nobody needs more than four pampered baby surrogates poochie-pooping around the trailer park, but a blanket law based on such thinking does not address the needs or rights of those who live on four sections and use dogs in their ranching operations, nor of the users of canine security, nor of the responsible citizens who enjoy the profitable hobby of breeding the family dog.

Those proponents asserted that professional kennel owners oppose the ordinance out of self-interest, a view clearly not well thought out. By restricting the right of private owners to profitably breed family pets, the ordinance would eliminate non-professional competition. Kennels would become most profitable if the ordinance permitted no fertile pet animals at all! The local Kennel Association defended the right of private animal-owners to compete with their own business because they savor the relationship between owner and dog, and train both in socially-responsible behavior.

It is likely none who operate as professional businesses would object to a license fee as such. The problem lies not in paying the fee, but in determining who has permission to do so. It is a matter of how one may get -- or block someone else from getting -- the special use permits, environmental clearances, neighbors’ release statements, noise abatement studies, etc., etc., which a responsible board of bureaucrats might eventually come to require.

The ordinance was an attempt to gain broad-brush authority by which the ability of landowners to freely determine use of their own property, to own and raise animals, and to conduct legitimate trade would be subject to the decrees of a small appointed board, regardless of whether or not any actual violation of any person’s rights was shown to have occurred. By focusing upon limitations applied to all in hope of limiting the violating few, the ordinance would not address the real violations of rights at all: noise, health, safety, and care. It neatly avoids all of them!

Licensing of either kennels or dogs does not address the problem of uncontrolled strays or wandering pets. The solution depends on first establishing a clear definition of the problem: by Animal Control, are we talking about human public health, or about animals’ rights? If granting "humanitarian" rights to certain species is the objective of the publically-funded activity, then perhaps the adoptable residents of the Animal Shelter should be imposed by law upon human families as a civic duty, by random, like jury duty, a kind of animal affirmative action? Umm? If on the other hand, the problem is defined as control of vermin population of domestic species, nothing beats a bounty. Voluntary registration and lip-tattoo would protect owners -- a dead "lipped" animal would bring a fine, not a bounty, giving bounty hunters cause for respect. A live one would bring a ransom. Folks who value their animals would protect them, and strays would be very rare.

Whether unwanted animals are eliminated by bounty hunters or by paid employees of the State, communities face expensive problems of feeding resident populations in the Animal Shelter, and disposing of thousands of euthanized animals. Except for sentimental attachment to the species, why can we not find some profitable way to recycle the tons of meat they represent, as we could if they were sheep, horses, or goats? That is an abhorrent idea to many people, no matter how practical it may be, but it points out one significant difficulty in facing the problem. Are we solving the technical problems of animal control, or merely pandering to public emotion?

We have all heard someone cluck that Hindus will starve while there are mountains of beef strolling uneaten all around them. We have hungry people in our country also, yet we still spend public money to dispose of hundreds of tons of usable food because we have a cultural taboo against eating dog and cat...even as livestock feed. How much of the issue of civil animal control stems from squeamish citizens’ wishing certain emotion-provoking matters kept from their view? Is not "humane euthanasia" employed more to ease the shock of the observer than that of the animal?

Regardless of the means of disposal of the unwanted, the correct solution to the problem is not to create laws which restrict the rights of property owners, but instead to create laws which protect the rights of citizens from violation by their neighbors’ practices or pets. These would include clear definitions of noise nuisance standards, health hazard standards, and animal care standards, and the uncontested right to trap, shoot, or otherwise dispose of any unwanted animal upon one’s own property, and to use force in protecting one’s person, family, pets, or property from attack by any animal on public property.

Clearly, neither the approach of the pragmatic exterminator nor of the dewy-eyed puppy messiah can serve the needs of the entire community. However, by keeping rights of the individual citizen foremost, and tempering that reasoning with compassion for both innocent animals and sensitive people, it is possible to create a workable system which balances human social wellbeing, animal rights, and costs.