On an overcast Monday, a Labrador-blue heeler mix lies next to a mobile home off a cul-de-sac in a subdivision near the state penitentiary. She’s leashed via rope to a fence, her default position when her owner, Rilye, goes to work.
"I don't like having to tie her up, but I don't want her to be running off," says Rilye, who declines to give his last name for fear of "looking like the asshole" in this story about proposed changes to the county animal control ordinance.
Rilye says his dog, which he adopted from a shelter about four months ago, will attempt to bolt out of his yard the moment he unties her. One time, she managed to crawl under his fence into the neighbor's yard.
He insists there's nothing wrong about the way he restrains his pet. But sometimes, when his dog is tied up too long, she'll get restless and take her frustration out on surrounding property. "She rips up our irrigation system," he notes, pointing to a strip of torn rubber tubing next to dog's paws.
As for the suggestion of cruelty, Rilye says, "We take her to the park. She's not being abused."
Come this fall, if Santa Fe County lawmakers pass a new animal control ordinance, Rilye's practice of roping up his dog could earn him a fine or even land him in jail.
The county's proposed ordinance bans all forms of tethering as a primary means of restraining animals, including the trolley systems allowed in the city. (Picture a cable strung between two poles. Another cable connects the dog to the overhanging wire.) Violators would face a misdemeanor charge, punishable by a $300 fine and up to 90 days in jail.
Animal welfare advocates say the proposed rule will make the county safer—not just for dogs, but for people as well. Chained dogs account for about 17 percent of dog bites and injuries nationwide, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Advocates also point to literature that says tethering dogs deprives them of the socialization and companionship necessary for them to live healthy lives.
Bennett Baur, director of the state's public defender system, says the potential punishments under the county's ordinance proposal go too far. "Our state is moving away from criminalizing conduct. The county may decide this is something they want to make illegal, but they should punish it with something other than jail time," he tells SFR.
A 2008 study by the Department of Public Safety encouraged statewide legislation to restrict the use of chains to restrain dogs. That hasn't happened.
But San Miguel, Bernalillo and Doña Ana Counties all recently banned the practice. And two years ago, Santa Fe City passed an ordinance requiring that dog owners who tether their pets as a method of restraint use a trolley system.
Johnny Martinez, supervisor of the city's Animal Services Division, says Santa Fe is headed in the direction of a full ban on animal tethering. The trolley exception gives pet owners some time to adjust. "We didn't want to go from one extreme to the other," Martinez says.
Citizen complaints regarding chained dogs have steadily declined since that ordinance went into effect. "If we get eight to 10 a month, that's a lot," Martinez says. "When we first changed our ordinance, we were getting calls on a daily basis."
Martinez credits community outreach for the reduction, saying his officers worked hard in the early months to educate pet owners about the change. He says officers offered "one-time deals" to ordinance violators, dropping citations once they came into compliance. And Animal Protection of New Mexico this summer launched a program that will fund containment fences for area dog owners.
Chain Free Santa Fe, the group spearheading the county's push for banning animal tethering, collected about 600 signatures from supporters. If they are successful, it will be the first major change to the county's animal control ordinance since 1991, according to county Commissioner Kathy Holian.
VJ Khalsa, who lives in northern Santa Fe County, says she got it touch with the group through its Facebook page after losing sleep over her neighbor's pit bull, who spent a lot of time on a chain. She called animal control, but officers didn't find any violations on the property.
"I was just amazed there was no law that would prevent a dog from being abused like this," she says.
Khalsa says she decided to take things into her own hands, first offering to walk her neighbor's dog, and eventually paying for a fence.
"He's like a different dog now," she says.
Santa Fe County will hold a public meeting regarding proposed changes to the animal control ordinance on Tuesday, Sept. 13. Public comment starts no earlier than 5 pm at 102 Grant Ave.