Fatal dog-on-dog attack prompts Mt. Morris crackdowns on violations

State’s Animal Control Act prohibits breed-specific laws, limits laws village can make

Welcome to Mt. Morris sign.

MT. MORRIS – The village of Mt. Morris and its police department are cracking down on leash laws and working to increase penalties for violations following a fatal dog-on-dog incident last month.

“It’s an issue, and it’s one I will make sure we address within the legal limits of the law,” Village President Phil Labash said during the Mt. Morris Village Board meeting Sept. 12. He said he is close friends with the owners of the dog that was killed.

This is not the first time the Village Board has discussed the issue of dogs running at large and chasing or attacking people or other animals, Labash said, noting that he personally has had issues while walking his pets.

During the Sept. 12 board meeting, a 50-minute discussion about dogs that are “dangerous” and “vicious” – both of which are legal designations – took place between a few members of the public, board members and village attorney Rob LeSage III.

Per the state’s Animal Control Act, a dog can be deemed “dangerous” only by an appointed administrator or one of their designees; the administrator or the deputy administrator must be a licensed veterinarian. In Ogle County, the administrator is Dr. Thomas Champley, head of the Animal Control Department and an Oregon-based veterinarian.

Originally approved in 2003, the law requires a judge to be the one to declare a dog “vicious.” It defines a “vicious dog” as one that, “without justification, attacks a person and causes serious physical injury or death or any individual dog that has been found to be a ‘dangerous dog’ upon 3 separate occasions.”

“Just because you declare a dog dangerous doesn’t always solve the problem,” Champley said in a Sept. 21 interview. “That doesn’t get rid of the dog. Now, if you declare a dog vicious, then it’s a little more restrictive, but that has to be [triggered by] an attack on a person.”

Champley strongly encouraged people to report dog bites and attacks to the Ogle County Animal Control Department so that there is a record.

“It helps us to know history on a dog, if it’s bitten before,” he said. “If someone says a dog has bitten two times before but there’s no record, it’s just hearsay and we can’t do anything about it.”

There are things Mt. Morris officials and police can do that they haven’t been doing, Labash said. He pointed to the leeway that often has been given to first-time violators of the village’s leash law, noting that no leeway will be given going forward.

“We generally give a warning to somebody if their dog is loose as a first offense if we have no record of it occurring before,” Mt. Morris Police Chief Michael Cicchetti said in a Sept. 18 interview. “At this point, we want to remind citizens that, because of the most recent event, we’re going to be cracking down harder on loose dogs, specifically the violation of dogs running at large.”

About 6:15 a.m. Aug. 24, a Mt. Morris police officer responded to a report of a “pit bull” attacking another dog while a person fended it off with a stick, according to the case report. The dogs were separated when the officer arrived, with the offending dog back in its home, the report states.

“Pit bull” is not a breed, but an umbrella term for several breeds, including the American bully, American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier and American bulldog.

In a follow-up interview with the victim dog’s owner, the officer was told the dog died from the injuries sustained in the attack, according to the police report.

The owner of the offending dog – which the report calls a bully bit bull – was cited for a dog running at large and fined $50.

Labash said he was told by the owners of the victim dog that they were told by the offending dog’s owner that the offending dog was euthanized.

Law Enforcement Village Trustee Chris Kolling said he was all for increasing fines faced by owners of dogs running at large. LeSage said that was something the village could do.

Labash directed Kolling to work with Cicchetti and LeSage to figure out what kind of increased repercussions the village is allowed to impose, and to bring that back to the Village Board as a whole.

What the legally is allowed to do won’t go far enough, because the Animal Control Act limits some of the kinds of rules they can make, Labash said.

The Animal Control Act explicitly forbids municipalities from making breed-specific laws, including any breed-specific bans, LeSage said. Champley agreed, noting that courts have struck down municipal laws that tried to ban specific breeds.

“It’s no different than laws affecting people,” Champley said. “You sometimes wish there’s more than what it is, but it depends on people’s rights, too.”

Trustees Melissa Rojas and Morgan McConnell pointed out that whether a dog poses a threat isn’t because of a breed, but goes back to responsible pet ownership and how the animal was raised.

Rojas said she wants to look into ways to encourage responsible pet ownership.

McConnell asked that any changes in the village’s dog-related laws take into account all breeds, and Labash agreed.

“Chihuahuas, rottweilers, we treat them all the same,” Labash said.

The Ogle County Animal Control Department’s phone number is 815-732-1185.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify that an administrator or a deputy administrator must be a licensed veterinarian. – Sept. 25, 2023

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner reports on Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties for Shaw Media out of the Dixon office. Previously, she worked for the Record-Eagle in Traverse City, Michigan, and the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.