By Bob Uphues
Riverside's village board has been asked to tighten up local laws concerning vicious dogs after two incidents, one injuring a resident and another killing another dog, last August involving two dogs belonging to the same family.
Last fall, Keith Altavilla, a resident of Leesley Road who said he was bitten by one of the same dogs in 2015, pleaded with village trustees to amend its ordinance regarding vicious dogs to make it easier to take action against them and to prevent owners whose dogs have been declared vicious from being able to house any animal of the same species in Riverside.
Since that August attack, Altavilla told village trustees on Dec. 15, the family whose dogs were declared vicious had already gotten a new dog and that it was barking at people on walks.
"This owner does not have a clue as to how to raise a dog and how to properly socialize it," Altavilla said. "And when people just don't get it, there needs to be something involved to protect the community from folks that either aren't willing to be responsible or aren't capable of being responsible."
Also on Dec. 15, Michael Perricone, whose dog was killed in one of the August attacks, described what he called a "life altering" incident in which his dog died.
Perricone said he was knocked flat by the 80-pound pit bull, which had broken free from the person walking it and sprinted 100 yards to get at Perricone's 18-pound Havanese, Max.
"Max did not deserve to die such a horrible death, but he might have saved the life of a child," Perricone said. "Then Max will not have died in vain. … I don't want something like this to happen to anyone else."
On Feb. 2, village trustees are expected to continue discussing the matter and could enact changes in the law.
One thing sure to change is the number of bite incidents it takes to have a dog declared vicious. Dogs can't be declared vicious in Riverside under the present law until a third bite incident. And while Police Chief Thomas Weitzel says it's possible for police to open a vicious dog investigation after just one serious incident, the present law is unclear on that subject.
He would like clear language in the amended law that states an investigation can be opened immediately following an attack that kills another pet or involved "mauling" a human. Just what a "mauling" is would be determined by medical personnel treating the victim, Weitzel said.
Weitzel has recommended that the trigger for launching a vicious dog investigation be lowered from three incidents involving unprovoked attacks on humans or other pets to two. The incidents also must occur away from the dog owner's property, unless it involved mail carriers or family members.
An incident involving a dog bite won't always count toward the number needed to declare a dog vicious. There are circumstances in which dogs may nip other pets or people, because they are being bothered, for example.
"There would be discretion by the chief at each level to determine whether a bite is a qualifying bite or not," said Village Attorney Lance Malina. "That's what the due process is all about."
Weitzel said that several residents have asked him whether the village could prohibit certain breeds of dogs, such as pit bulls. However, Weitzel pointed to state law, which states that "local government is prohibited from adopting animal control ordinances or regulations that are breed specific."
But with respect to restricting the right of dog ownership, that might be more difficult to introduce, according to Malina.
"I don't know of any ordinance that attempts to create a disqualification," Malina said. "The only real way to do it effectively would be in an extreme case that you'd actually bring an injunctive action at the circuit court and prove up the repeated problems and then ask for an order."
Village President Ben Sells asked how denying someone the ability to own a dog was any different than the village taking away a resident's ability to raise chickens or keep bees if they are found not to be responsible.
Malina said keeping bees and chickens had a zoning component to licensing that dogs didn't.
"They involve more than just having an animal that sleeps in your bed at night and goes out in the yard during the day," Malina said.
Trustees in February will also consider a recommendation to limit the number of dogs per household to three (two per unit in a multifamily structure); presently there's no restriction.
In addition, there's some talk of perhaps requiring cats to be licensed, though officials acknowledged that it might be difficult to enforce such a law, since cats are very often kept indoors all the time.
"I've never seen an unlicensed cat ticket," Malina said.