Los Angeles residents who live within hearing distance of an estimated 2,000 chronically barking dogs go through a private hell, with City Hall policies allowing the barking to continue for months. But things might change with a new law, now in effect, to fine dog owners $250 to $1,000 — that is, if anyone enforces it.
In 2009, 19,351 notices were sent to pet owners for barking, leash and cruelty violations, some 10 percent of which were believed to be persistent barking-dog violations. Then, in 2010, a bizarre series of events unfolded as City Hall tried to crack down. First, in May 2010, in a story that went national, the Los Angeles Times, Daily Breeze and CBS reported that the City Council voted 10-0 to create a $100 fine against obnoxious dog owners. Some media suggested the fines could generate up to $1.8 million annually.
Nobody at City Hall seems to know what happened to that vote. There's no record of it on the city website, and the Department of Animal Services never implemented a $100 fine — much less collected $1.8 million.
Instead, last year, one veteran animal services employee told L.A. Weekly that he had never heard of a $100 fine. And despite thousands of annual complaints, the department held only 83 formal administrative hearings to force owners to control their barking dogs.
Then, on Nov. 1, the City Council unanimously passed a new law.
It still forces the countless victims of barking dogs to attend a formal hearing, only a handful of which are held each month by Animal Services. But now, city officials promise, owners of barking dogs will pay $250, $500 and $1,000, respectively, if the first, second and third administrative hearings find them at fault.
Under current practices, "You have to follow up on your complaint before they'll even take it seriously," says Sherman Oaks resident and barking complainant Tom Materna. For him, "It wasn't even until the third case number [was created] that it finally went through. It's definitely geared toward the dog owners and not the complaining neighbors. It's not called Human Services — it's called Animal Services."
The law defines "excessive noise" as that "which unreasonably interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life," and is "continuously audible for ten (10) minutes or intermittently audible for thirty (30) minutes within a three (3) hour period."
It adds a requirement for the victims of chronic barking as well: Their second official complaint must be corroborated by a letter — from another neighbor.
Those victimized by horrific noise problems, callous, inconsiderate neighbors and a strangely lenient city government are only guardedly optimistic.
"While I am pleased the City Council passed it, passing or amending an ordinance does not ensure there would be any further energy applied to this," says John Glitzow, a Mid-City resident whose neighbors, he says, chain their dogs to the front porch on three feet of leash, where they bark viciously for hours.
"I have been told by enforcement officials, 'Do not be surprised if the lack of attention to complaints worsens due to the current economy,' " Glitzow says. "These officials should be simply doing what they are paid to do in a day's work shift."
The wait for a hearing can be eight months while a dog barks persistently. Yet Animal Services General Manager Brenda Barnette seems to suggest that far more Angelenos should jump into the city's gridlocked system if they expect any help.
"The enforcement really is about the people filing the complaints," Barnette says. "Often, the first time they call regarding the barking dog, we do send someone out to talk with them. It's about the people actually following through — and filing a complaint."
But then what? Barnette's department employs just one hearing officer — in a city that employs some 50,000 port, airport, utility and other city department workers. That, and other signs, suggest that Animals Services is biased toward dog owners and against those who complain.
Barnette suggests that L.A. residents routinely pursue barking complaints to avenge some other hidden resentment, saying, "The way it's been, a complaint could be about dog barking — or it could be about something else the neighbor doesn't like."
But when the Weekly talked to several complainants involved in separate cases, it was clear that they had wanted a cordial connection to, enjoyed friendships with or were completely unaware of their dog-owning neighbors — until the barking started.
"Our neighbors are vindictive — they're bullies," says Highland Park resident Barbara Lopez, who, with husband Richard, lives next to a rental property that houses several dogs, including one especially loud pit bull that's permanently outdoors.
Lopez says the pit bull's owners are hostile and contemptuous toward the senior-age Lopezes. Their quiet lives have been affected in devastating ways. "Friends and family stopped coming over," Lopez says. "I walk around with earplugs in, and I sleep on the floor or in another room. It's made our lives a living hell and my husband has had two heart attacks."
She says two administrative rulings by the L.A. Department of Animal Services were in their favor, and Lopez says hearing officer George Mossman was fair and just.
But Barnette, a busy city department head dealing with frequent political headaches, found the time to intervene. Lopez says Barnette overruled Mossman.
The case wended through the bureaucracy for months. Eventually, Animal Services ruled against the dog owners.
Yet nothing changed. Lopez says Animal Services officials today let the barking to continue in Highland Park. Lopez concludes that Barnette, who moved here from Seattle in 2010, suffers from an illogical fear of being perceived as "anti–pit bull."
As far-fetched as that sounds, this is Los Angeles, where city officials are widely viewed as inefficient and often absurd. In 2005, an American Staffordshire terrier, similar to a pit bull, seriously bit someone. Animal Services declared it a "dangerous dog" and ordered it euthanized. The owner, who was on vacation during the incident, fought relentlessly to save his dog.
"This guy was real agitated and a very assertive personality," says Jim Bickhart, an aide to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "And the case became a cause célèbre. He called it an injustice — and got all kinds of animal groups involved."
Today, Bickhart says, "The Board of Animal Services Commissioners is always bound to bend over backwards in favor of the dog — and the dog owner."
Where do the seemingly sacred rights of uncontrolled pets end? "The main thing about the hearing process is how long it takes to get them scheduled or to get a hearing," says Bickhart, who claims the city is trying to add a hearing officer.
Yet even with the new fine, Los Angeles takes a fairly lax approach to silencing its incessantly barking dogs.
Houston and San Francisco are tough, sending the police to intervene; New York City sends a warning letter and, if that's ignored, a noise inspector who can issue a fine (of up to $175); Dallas noise inspectors must investigate within 72 hours.
L.A. is more like Chicago and Dallas, where barking must be proved (generally on tape by the victimized neighbor) to be ongoing for 10 or 15 consecutive minutes, respectively. Phoenix is even tougher on neighbors who complain, strongly recommending "mediation" — with the dog owner.
City Councilman Paul Koretz insists the new anti-barking fine and law are patterned after an "administrative code enforcement" approach that will dispense with a tortuously drawn-out hearing process by quickly issuing a ticket fine to the offender — as with traffic or parking.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"Residents in L.A. have always complained about the city's inability to do a good job on quality of life issues," he says.
But Animal Services officer Karrie DeMacio says she still doesn't know "how the new fines are going to be implemented or whether or not Animal Services officers will be out in the field issuing citations."
In Los Angeles, it seems, the best way to shut up 2,000 barking dogs is the rarest of events: "If an [Animal Services] officer sees it," DeMacio says, "that's gold."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.