Dog days of Louisville

Horror stories about enforcement of the city’s dangerous dog ordinance

After 30 years remodeling homes, Orson Crisler lives a retiree’s life with his family in a modest house on M Street in central Louisville. On a hot day last July, one of Crisel’s family members — a rottweiler, one of six — ran into the street.

Within moments a friend returned the wayward canine, but it was too late: A neighbor had called Louisville Metro Animal Services, and the responding animal control officer determined Crisler’s dogs, which were safely inside at that point, were not properly enclosed, hadn’t received proper shots and needed to be impounded. The officer reportedly entered the home without a warrant, seized the animals, levied a $1,000 fine and catalyzed a legal battle that would test not only the limits of Crisler’s fixed income, but also the limits of our constitutional rights.

“I went to an attorney and paid him a thousand dollars,” explains Crisler. “All he did was write a letter. Then I went to another attorney, and all he did was make a phone call. I couldn’t afford to keep doing this, so I went down to the courthouse myself, got enough paperwork together to take my case up before a judge, only to find out I had typed it up wrong …”

Aided by a courthouse employee, Crisler managed to get everything in order. But when all was said and done, he had lost time, money and two of his rottweilers, which apparently died under “mysterious circumstances” during impoundment.

“I’m angry about it,” he says, “but I can’t afford to keep fighting them. It’s tyranny.”

Following enactment of the city’s so-called dangerous dog ordinance in 2007, prompted by headline-grabbing incidents of dog-on-human violence, scenarios like Crisler’s now number in the dozens.

When Janet Head of Jeffersontown called Metro Animal Services to find out what kind of license she would need to breed toy schnauzers, she was told to obtain a Class-A breeder’s license.

“They told me I could get the license whenever was convenient,” she says, noting that she became seriously ill after starting her application process in January. In mid-March, on the very day Head was discharged from the hospital, “(animal control officers) broke into my home,” she says. “They came in through our window. And they not only took my animals, but they took my sister’s, too, even though she wasn’t going to sell any of hers.”

Head says the officers left a warrant behind, but she has yet to obtain any word from animal services or Louisville Metro Police (who appear to be reluctantly complicit partners in these efforts) on whether the document is a valid seizure warrant. In the meantime, the Head sisters’ dogs were impounded and, as Janet Head learned, improperly medicated while in custody, causing them to vomit profusely.

Then there are horror stories of “Dateline: NBC”-style entrapment, wherein an “illegal dog seller” — often a private citizen looking to find a home for a stray or an unwanted litter via Craigslist — is contacted by a “prospective buyer” who turns out to be an animal services staffer.

A majority of the complaints filed as a result of the ordinance mention a kind of sliding-scale payment mechanism: The fine starts low, inexplicably skyrockets, and can be “haggled” down to a lower amount if the owner is “cooperative.” The criteria appear to vary by case, and the resulting fine is often beyond the means of an owner hoping to post pet-bail.

Swirling near the gaping maw of this turgid municipal vortex is the 3-year-old, oft-revised dog ordinance, whose latest incarnation — specifically a 2007 addendum granting investigative powers to city animal services employees — lays the groundwork for potential abuses.

Last week, the ordinance was the subject of a federal ruling in the case of Louisville Kennel Club v. Metro Government. Per the opinion of District Judge Charles Simpson III, the city is now prohibited from automatically holding animals before the owner’s trial. The ruling also places injunctions on animal services’ ability to levy seizure bonds and its rules that discriminate against owners of unaltered pets.

For the most part, the mainstream media ignored these and other complex consequences of the ruling.

“(The coverage) had a wrong feel to it,” says Jon Fleischaker, the attorney for Louisville Kennel Club and 11 other plaintiffs, including pet owners and veterinarians. “They made it seem as though it was a major victory for the city, a minor consequence for us. Not true.” He believes Simpson’s opinion limits the potential for misinterpretation by providing a nuanced reading of the law.

“He basically rewrote parts of the statute,” says Fleischaker. “In limiting the extent and reach of the ordinance by assuming things as they were written, he did everybody a favor, including us.” Had the entire ordinance been overturned, Metro Council would have to draft a new one from scratch, and in a year the kennel club would likely be back in court.

“This lawsuit was never about dogs,” says Barbara Haines of the Louisville Kennel Club. “It was always about people’s rights from day one.”

Kelly Downard, D-16, who wrote much of the original post-merger dog law, anticipates working with colleagues to implement changes. “I can’t predict what we’ll do,” he says, “but there are clearly some areas that need to be improved.”

When the federal lawsuit was filed in 2007, the judge had no anecdotal evidence to consider. As a result, then-Jefferson County Attorney Irv Maze persuaded the court to dismiss any Fourth Amendment claims because there were no instances of search and seizure violations. That means the grievances of people like Crisler, Head and hundreds of others were not specifically addressed in the ruling because they occurred after the suit was filed.

Now, a hurricane of civil rights lawsuits is on the horizon.

Dr. Gilles Meloche, director of Metro Animal Services, could not be reached for comment — in fact, animal services referred all queries to the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office — but the publicly known details of his sordid professional past (including allegations of veterinary misconduct and reports of bad on-the-job relationships) speak as loudly for him as does the current state of the organization over which he presides. Soon, all of the forthcoming civil suits will end up in court, and only then will the city’s dogs — and their owners — have a day of reckoning.