NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Within the last year, Music City Animal Advocates co-founder Denice Heatherly said she knows of at least two people who have been bitten and severely injured by dogs.

In both instances, Heatherly said the dogs they were bitten by were “just left to roam free.” Despite the severity of their injuries and one woman’s dog also racking up several vet bills because of its injuries, Heatherly said there were never any legal ramifications.

“Anybody who experiences that, the most that usually happens is a fine, a $50 fine, if it even goes that far, if it even makes it to court,” Heatherly said.

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Dogs at Centennial Dog Park (Photo: WKRN)

Dogs running off leash has long been a concern among Davidson County residents. However, the issue has gained attention in recent weeks as a new piece of legislation is making its way through the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County.

The legislation would amend two chapters of Metro Nashville and Davidson County’s Title 8 animal ordinance to tighten and clarify existing provisions, modify definitions like what makes a “vicious dog” and modernize some sections such as rabies vaccination requirements.

Heatherly, who served on a committee created by District 32 Council Member Joy Styles to start the process of updating the ordinance, said the current language in the ordinance allows too much leeway for dog owners on public property without leashes.

“The thing people seem to be the most concerned about are the animals running at large and that directly ties to the leash laws,” Heatherly said. “Because as the leash law stands right now there is an allowance for voice control, which is highly abused.”

Dog park sign_262986
(Photo: WKRN)

In addition to allowing owners to have their dogs under “voice control” while walking them, the current ordinance also makes an exception where owners can have their dogs off leash for “training.” However, the definition of training remains vague.

‘It really bothered me… with the way the law is written’

Council Members Joy Styles, Tonya Hancock and Russ Bradford are sponsoring the legislation, which Bradford said he sees as a “first step” toward addressing some of the larger issues surrounding animal control and dogs at large in Davidson County.

Bradford first began looking into the issues in 2020 after an incident in his district where a teenager was attacked by dogs. Bradford said the girl had been helping a neighbor walk her dogs for some time.

However, on one afternoon when the girl came over to help, Bradford said the woman tripped and fell on the front steps. When the girl went to help her up, the dogs attacked. Under the current language, those dogs would be considered “vicious,” despite the circumstances.

(Photo: WKRN)

“It’s a tragic situation but the dogs perceived a threat to their owner and in their mind, they acted accordingly,” Bradford said. “It really bothered me that with the way the law is written, it would be hard for a pet owner or even a judge to take in other factors and previous history.”

Upon examining Metro’s current ordinance, Bradford said he began to realize not only that much of the language was outdated, but that there were some other issues at play. According to Bradford, the last time the ordinance was updated was more than two decades ago.

“We’ve realized there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be updated, but because of the staffing and resources that are currently allocated to MACC, a lot of the stuff can’t be done right now,” Bradford said. “That’s where we’re at with my legislation is we wanted to identify everything possible that we can change that’s not going to cost any money.”

More funding, resources required for enforcement

While tightening the provisions in the ordinance will likely make it easier for Metro Animal Care and Control (MACC) and the Metro Public Health Department to enforce laws, Bradford said there will need to be more resources allocated to MACC to carry that out.

Based on size and population, Bradford said the Metro area has about half the animal control officers that most cities have. The agency has been “chronically understaffed,” with only one officer for the entire county on weekends in the past.

In their research, council members have met with leaders in Portland, Oregon, which is about 100 square miles smaller than Davidson County.

MACC Metro Animal Care and Control generic
MACC Metro Animal Care and Control (Photo: WKRN)

“But they have almost triple the number of animal control officers,” Bradford said. “Their shelter is twice the size of ours, so we definitely need more trucks, more equipment, more animal control officers, more vet staff, more space.”

Bradford said he has been pushing for more funding for MACC, as well as a second shelter location to expand access to spay and neuter services and ideally prevent people from abandoning their animals on the streets.

“If we had satellite shelters or secondary shelters closer, it’s making it more convenient for people to surrender their animal,” he said. “It’s also putting less strain on the staff because now they’re not having to drive from Joelton to Antioch two or three times a day picking up animals.”

In theory, Bradford said the proposed updates to the animal ordinance, including rabies vaccination requirements, could help generate money for the health department to provide more spay and neuter clinics, microchipping clinics and other animal services.

‘You need to make your voice heard’

He also sees it bringing more awareness to the lack of funding for MACC, and ideally encouraging people to continue to put pressure on city leaders to address the issues— something which Heatherly also agreed is part of the solution.

“You have to make your voice heard. If you have a concern please email your council person, let it be known,” she said. “If your council person never responds, in turn we can say to our community, ‘We have a representative that isn’t listening to our concerns,’ and that could affect that person’s election.”

Heatherly said she has been happy with Bradford and other council members’ responses so far, with several residents getting a chance to attend community meetings to address their concerns regarding Davidson County’s animal ordinance and leash laws.

Bradford said he plans to make additional amendments to the ordinance based on input from those community sessions. The second reading was delayed slightly in order for those changes to be made, but Bradford said the legislation could be up for a vote as soon as May.

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If passed, the ordinance would immediately be amended. Other proposed changes include no longer considering guard dogs as “vicious dogs,” and removing a section of the ordinance that Bradford said appeared like it was “allowing MACC to have unfettered access to people’s homes.”

To view the proposed legislation as of the council’s April 18 meeting, click here.

“My goal and my hope is it’s going to make it easier for MACC and the health department to enforce the laws,” he said. “But it’s also going to help with getting education out there that we have more updated information that fits with the current times.”