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New laws punish owners of vicious dogs

An Oklahoma lawmaker says too many vicious dogs tear into anyone who gets in their way, yet go unpunished.  Representative Paul Wesselhoft of Moore wants to make it a felony the very first time a vicious dog attacks. And he's not alone. The City of Lawton just passed an ordinance that does virtually the same thing. State law prevents the city from discriminating against certain breeds of dogs like pit bulls, but the city has passed an ordinance against any vicious animal that attacks, or even chases, a person.

City Councilman Keith Jackson says the city has passed this ordinance because two children in Lawton have been attacked by pit bulls in the last six months and someone has to be held responsible. "If we determine that your dog is a menace to society, a menace to your neighbors, a menace to children, then we can label it so and force you to buy a liability insurance policy as well as fence in your animal," Jackson said.  He Animal Control needed the city's help.  Workers have had to deal with vicious animals in the city over the past few years. "We don't want to outlaw any animal, but we would like to have more authority to keep an eye out on vicious or menacing animals," Jackson said.

Under the new ordinance, an owner would be punished with a $750 fine and up to 60 days in jail. But State Representative Paul Wesselhoft wants harsher punishments.  He has proposed a bill that would make it a felony for owners of dogs that seriously maul, maim or kill on their first attack.  "In Oklahoma the first bite is free, that's what we operate under," Wesselhoft said. "But the second bite, then we have legislation that takes care of that.  We have laws on the book that can punish somebody after the dog has been adjudicated as dangerous. But the first bite is free. That's why this bill is a paradigm shift, this is a dramatic change, this is a first bite felony."

But he says there would be strict criteria so only owners of dogs that truly are vicious would be punished.  "To be defined as a felony, the attack has to be vicious," Wesselhoft said. "The dog has to tear into tissue/muscle. There has to be multiple bites. The victim has to go to the hospital for hospitalization." If this law passes in the 2008 session, the first bite felony would be punishable by a mandatory year in prison, and a fatal attack could put the owner behind bars for an extended period of time. Both offenses would also carry $10,000 dollar fines.

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