SuAnne Pinoniemi can’t get over the memory of 185 neglected animals rescued earlier this year in Apache Junction. She hopes extensive changes to the city’s animal cruelty code, which were approved by the City Council, will protect other area pets from suffering a similar fate.
As an East Valley animal rescue group operator, the Apache Junction resident helped recover and socialize animals that in some cases were kept in crates their entire lives, she said.
“A lot of them don’t know what a human touch is like,” she said. “Some have been living in their own feces for years.”
Some of the Shetland Terriers rescued from the home had misshapen bodies caused by their restricted confinement, Pinoniemi said.
“One little sheltie, all he could do is walk in circles,” she said.
In March, the council adopted a variety of changes to dozens of pages of city code, aimed at making it easier to prevent such cases and punish those who neglect animals, but to avoid criminalizing less serious cases, said city attorney Joel Stern.
Stern said the city was already reviewing its animal codes when in early February police were called to a residence where four animal control officers found 47 dogs, 96 rabbits, 18 chickens, 13 goats, six horses and other animals, all sickly, filthy and distressed.
Some of the animals were in such poor health that they had to be put down. The incident highlighted the need to make changes, and brought out an outcry from citizens concerned about area pets in a rural community where they say it’s easy to hide animals kept in bad conditions.
Stern said the review was originally begun after he noticed that too many residents were being charged criminally with leash law or barking dog violations. Many of the code changes approved make leash law and related offenses civil violations with fines, when they had been misdemeanors.
That ensures that it’s easier to prosecute and fine offenders, Stern said. But it also makes it less likely that someone whose dog accidentally gets loose faces a more serious offense.
“You get a 19-year-old person who never had a crime, never was in jail or had a speeding ticket,” Stern said. “And now their dog gets out, and now they have a misdemeanor. Is that fair?”
The code also adds an entirely new section defining animal cruelty, and giving the city the ability to investigate serious neglect cases as misdemeanor crimes. Extreme cases like the house with 185 pets would still be forwarded as felony crimes to statewide police agencies.
The new cruelty codes make it a crime in Apache Junction to overwork, torment, beat, mutilate or unlawfully kill an animal, or house animals in unhealthy conditions without proper food, water, shelter, medical care and ventilation. It requires that animals receive daily food free of contamination, and that water is accessible at all times, among other requirements.
The code also beefs up requirements that residents with more than three dogs must have a personal kennel permit and undergo annual inspections.
Some residents decried those changes as violations to their privacy.
Apache Junction resident Noel Benoist said the city should take advantage of laws already in place at the state and federal levels. Some residents oppose the searches required for what would amount to family pets — though Benoist added that it’s more likely for some of the complaints to be from those who don’t have good conditions for their pets.
“I think they’re going to have a hard time enforcing it,” he said. “Because without probable cause they could end up in a constitutional issue as far as people’s rights to privacy and property rights.”
Councilman Joe Severs said that residents have told him they plan to avoid the searches and permits, because they feel it’s “too much invasion of private property rights. They don’t like strangers in their homes.”