City looks to increase fines for unlicensed pets

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November 8, 2010
By: Jake Weyer
Jake Weyer
// It’s the latest push in an effort to boost compliance with a law that few pet owners follow //

For Ken Goldman, a pet license is to a dog owner what a fishing license is to an angler. It’s a necessity, a no-brainer; it’s the law.

But few pet owners in Minneapolis follow that mindset.

“I never thought of not licensing my dog,” said Goldman, who owns dog-gear store Stunt Puppy in the Warehouse District and serves on the Minneapolis Animal Care & Control (MACC) Advisory Board. “But for most people it’s the exact opposite. Most people don’t license their dog.”

Pet licensing is a problem the city has tried for years to overcome through increased education, discounts, the launch of online licensing and other efforts. But the numbers haven’t picked up. As of this year, only 11,375 of the city’s estimated 110,000 dogs and 125,000 cats are licensed — a measly 5 percent.

Now, following a recommendation from the advisory board, MACC is looking to get a little tougher. In a proposal heading to the City Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee Nov. 10, MACC seeks to double the penalty for unlicensed dogs and cats from $100 to $200. The department also plans to step up enforcement in areas of high dog and cat concentrations, meaning owners of pets caught without a city-issued collar tag or microchip will be ticketed.

“All you need to do is hit three or four owners and word will travel really quick,” said MACC manager Dan Niziolek, who noted that his team of about a dozen officers has more time now that the busy summer season is over.

City Council Member Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) is also bringing forward a pet licensing change this month. She has proposed replacing the city’s annual license, which starts and expires in January regardless of when it is purchased, with a license that is good for 12 months from the day it is bought.

MACC hopes that change, along with the stiffer penalties and its other initiatives, will finally boost pet registration, which allows the city to track the dog and cat population, return lost animals, pay for shelter and animal-care services and promote public safety through responsible ownership.

“If people see that there is a responsibility to license their pet, they will take pet ownership more seriously, Niziolek said. “We want people to realize that in an urban environment there is a real impact on an animal being brought into your life.”  

More pet licenses could also have a real impact on MACC’s bottom line. Licensing fees help pay for veterinary care for strays, investigations of animal cruelty and dangerous animals, finding homes for abandoned animals and enforcement of animal laws. But the city’s general fund, which is where license fines are funneled, still pays for the bulk of MACC’s operations.

Lori Olson, the city’s deputy director of environmental management and safety, said if MACC reaches its longterm goal of licensing 20 percent of the city’s dogs and cats, it would almost be able to fund itself without general-fund help.

Goodman said there has been talk of animal control becoming more fee-for-service based, so taxpayers without pets and responsible owners who license their animals aren’t carrying the burden of paying for all of MACC’s services, which primarily cover pets with irresponsible owners.

“I think there’s a feeling that more people should register their dogs so that animal control becomes more self-supporting,” Goodman said.

She guessed the council would support both the change to the license timeframe and the penalty increase. The issues could get through committee and go to the full council for a vote later this month.

MACC recently hired a new program development director who will help market and implement its license efforts. The goal is to have 18,000 pets licensed within the next 20 months and reach the 20-percent mark within seven years, Niziolek said.

But finding willing pet owners could be a challenge. Sarah Smith, who owns dog training and exercise business Paws n Motion in the Waite Park neighborhood, said licensing has become little more than a pet tax.

“Ultimately there’s not really an incentive to license your pet,” she said.

Smith said microchipping, which is available outside of the Minneapolis facility, has made locating a lost pet much easier than it used to be. She also said owning a dog is expensive without the $30 annual license fee and she guessed enforcement would be more than the city could handle.   

“I think the whole licensing thing deserves to be revisited,” she said. “I don’t think the answer is just to put our heads down and say ‘well, we’ve always licensed dogs, so we’re going to continue to license dogs.’”

Anne Hendrickson, owner of daycare facility Downtown Dogs and a member of the MACC Advisory Board, said most people don’t register their dogs because they aren’t aware of the policy, don’t know how, or think the consequences and odds of getting caught are minimal. She said the city has now taken steps to address all of those issues.

“The main thing is that when you live in a city, you’re expected to comply with the law and that is the law and it will benefit your pet and benefit you,” Hendrickson said.

At the off-leash area in Loring Park on a recent Monday evening, three dog owners played with their licensed pooches. Not surprisingly, all said they would support a bigger penalty for unlicensed animals.

Loring Park resident Jeff Field compared licensing his English Mastiff, Duke, to paying the tabs on his car; it’s just something he does.

“I’m surprised more people aren’t,” he said.  

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.