A new pet ordinance has some Coeburn residents up in arms. From left are Pauline Owens and Blackie, Darrian Richardson and Sheba, and Pauline Ratcliffe and Six Toe. Stephen Igo photo.
COEBURN - Fur is within a whisker of flying in Coeburn over a new town ordinance to crack down on free roaming pets, and chickens too, for that matter.
Adopted by the Coeburn Town Council in December, the new ordinance took effect Feb. 1. The ordinance makes it against the law "for any person to allow animals or poultry to run at large" within the corporate limits.
"Running at large means to roam, run, self-hunt or move in an unconfined manner while off the property of its owner or custodian and not under its owner's or custodian's immediate control," reads the ordinance.
Violation is considered a Class IV misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $250 fine.
For town residents like Pauline Ratcliffe, the prospect of getting a "rap sheet," as well as forking over another $50 on top of a potential fine, to spring each and any of her beloved six felines out of the county pet pokey, means war.
"I am a Vietnam (era) veteran and worked 27 years as a nurse. I've gotten a few little cats, and now they're going to give me static over it?" Ratcliffe said. "That's just not right for people to get a rap sheet and pay $300 per animal. How can old people afford $300 if their cat goes on a neighbor's yard? So we want the town to revoke that law."
Ratcliffe and other citizens are circulating a petition demanding revocation of the ordinance. She said they intend to submit their petition and demands during the March 12 session of the Town Council.
"I called the town manager, and she said cats would have to be confined. She said, ‘Put up a fence.' My word. Cats can climb trees 30 feet high. You can't fence in a cat," Ratcliffe said.
"I called one of the town councilmen, and he said to tie cats up just like you do a dog. That's cruelty to animals. Three councilmen and the mayor have been very rude to me. (Some members of the Town Council are) up for re-election next year. We want to make sure nobody votes for them after this. Also, if a dog crosses the road to visit a neighbor's yard, why do they want to arrest the dog? The neighbors want him to come visit. What business is it of theirs who visits who in this town? None of theirs, that's for sure."
Town Manager Loretta Mays and Police Chief W.R. Stout said Ratcliffe is stirring up a hornet's nest over a misunderstanding of the intent of the new ordinance. Stout said the goal of town officials is to "separate the strays from the pets" and get the message out that pet owners should be more responsible about allowing their animals free rein.
"Most towns, in my research on this, also includes mandatory tags for their animals. We decided we didn't want that to be a part of our ordinance. The county already has a tag law anyway," Mays said. "The intent of the ordinance is to get rid of stray animals in town. We've received a lot of calls from people who have been frightened by dogs during a walk, or of somebody's animals doing their business in (the wrong) yard. The ordinance has very straightforward, plain language. Animals must be under the owner's control."
That doesn't necessarily translate into a leash law, Mays said. Pet owners can still walk with their animals unleashed, provided the animals are under the owner's control in some fashion. Voice commands work for her, Mays said, as long as they work as well for the animal.
Stout said since the new ordinance went into effect, five dogs have been apprehended. Two were returned to their owners with a warning, but no charges filed or fines demanded, he said.
"There have been problems off and on with strays through the years," Stout said. "A lot of people seem to feel this targets pet owners, but really what we want to do is clean up the strays. Some people do need to be more responsible as pet owners, though, and more considerate of their neighbors."
Mays said the town has always relied on Wise County's animal control officers to deal with unwanted or free-roaming animals. She said the county has rounded up free-roaming animals before the ordinance went into effect, and can enforce its own animal control ordinances in town at any time "and I can't help that."
Ratcliffe said the town can certainly take credit for a potential $250 fine that didn't exist before December. She said if the town wants a fund-raiser, all they have to do is target pet owners to give a boost to town coffers.
"They're stifling our freedoms over our animals," she said. "I mean, (Mayor Lynn Wells) opened a can of worms over this law. We want it revoked."
As for poultry, Stout said town officials figured it might be a good idea to include domesticated birds in the ordinance for a reason.
"We actually had some chickens running loose all over the west end for a while there," he said.