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City’s threatened crackdown on unlicensed dogs more bark than bite

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Updated: December 1, 2013 8:20AM

Chicago’s two-year-old threat to tighten the regulatory leash on more than 653,000 owners of unlicensed dogs turned out to be more bark than bite.

An admittedly exasperated City Clerk Susana Mendoza acknowledged as much Tuesday after testifying at City Council budget hearings.

Mendoza said she did her part to boost dog registrations — from 29,396 in 2011 to 40,896 this year — by offering free rabies vaccines at citywide events and holding an online dog registration contest with prizes donated by local businesses.

But those carrots were supposed to be followed by a stick: $30 to $200 tickets for dog owners who have thumbed their noses at the city’s mandatory dog license for decades without consequence.

Instead, the city’s Commission on Animal Care and Control dropped the ball — either because it is inundated and understaffed or because Mayor Rahm Emanuel changed executive directors just when a ticket blitz was supposed to begin with stings at dog parks and beaches.

Whatever the reason, Mendoza is frustrated about the lack of follow-up.

At a time when the cash-strapped city is raising parking fines and counting on $130 million in revenue from red light and speed cameras, Mendoza said the city is leaving millions on the table by failing to follow through on its threat.

“When you go to the beach and it’s not a dog beach and people are running their dogs out there, people who have kids certainly would wish that dog at the very least had a license and, if it doesn’t, that you get a ticket,” Mendoza said.

“We’re responsible for licensing. We did a tremendous job of that the year that we tackled that hard. But it was really predicated on a strong enforcement effort, which we’re not responsible for . . . I have not seen a crackdown that I would feel comfortable with in terms of really getting people to license their dogs. I’m very disappointed in it.”

Brad Powers, a spokesman for the city’s Commission on Animal Care and Control, could not be reached for comment.

Mendoza said she understands the commission’s dilemma, adding, “If you have 500,000 dogs in the city and 25 employees that have full responsibility for enforcing that, it really is an untenable situation.”

But, if Animal Care and Control has more important things to do, Mendoza said the city should consider privatizing a ticketing function that could pay for itself in short order.

For years, dog owners who failed to purchase dog licenses got a total pass.

That changed in 2005, when the clerk’s office finally put the computer software in place to match its short list of licensed dogs with Cook County’s 100,000-plus list of Chicago dogs with rabies shots.

Warning letters were then mailed to those whose names appeared on the county’s list, but not the city’s, prompting a small boost in registration.

That’s the way it stayed until October, 2011, when Mendoza’s outreach campaign and the threat of tickets prompted a larger surge in dog registrations.

Although widely ignored, dog licenses remain a bargain. It’s $5-a-year for spayed and neutered dogs, $50 for those that are not and $2.50 for dog owners who are senior citizens.

Mendoza estimated Chicago’s dog population at more that 500,000. The Anti-Cruelty Society pegged the number of dogs in the city at 653,000.

Two years ago, a wisecracking Emanuel endorsed the plan ticket and fine Chicago owners of unlicensed dogs.

“Look, we all love our individual pets. I grew up with them myself. But you can’t have some people abiding and being responsible and others not,” the mayor said then.

“The system falls apart if you don’t have comprehensive and total enforcement. . . . You can’t have some people abiding by the law and others getting a break. I want a comprehensive approach that way. That’s what I believe about it. . . . If we have a policy in place, I want it enforced.”


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