No charges if pit bulls run loose, but backyard chickens have to go

I’m not really trying to stir the proverbial pot with the provocative title to this post, but it’s a fair conclusion based on the news of the past few days.

Two weeks ago, 7-year-old Javon Roberson was savagely mauled by two pit bulls that had managed to get away from their owner, apparently because a child opened a car door allowing them to run free. Despite the severity of the attack, no charges will be filed.

Meanwhile, a couple was cited for keeping 22 chickens on Wilmington Island in unincorporated Chatham County, where no chickens are allowed in any zoning districts except the two labeled “agriculture”. It then became known that Paula Deen of The Lady and Sons keeps hens, as does Savannah Bee Company founder Ted Dennard, so they have now been cited by the county zoning administrator as well.

And, believe me, there are a bunch more folks on Wilmington and in other unincorporated neighborhoods that keep backyard chickens, which has turned into a popular movement in the Savannah area and throughout the country.

From yesterday’s Savannah Morning News article by Mary Landers:

Last Wednesday, Chatham County issued celebrity chef Paula Deen a violation notice about the five rescue hens she keeps in a luxury coop on her marshfront property on Wilmington Island.

“She was cited and given time to address the violation,” said Gregori Anderson, director of Chatham County Building Safety and Regulatory Services.

The birds’ offense: Deen’s property is not zoned with either of two “residential agricultural” designations, the only zones that allow chickens in unincorporated Chatham County. Her hens were brought to the county’s attention after zoning administrator Robert Sebek told another Wilmington Island family – Bill and Jan Lynes – their 22 hens had to go.

The Lynes are prepared to go to court to keep their chickens. Deen’s publicist Nancy Assuncao said Deen will “comply with whatever needs to be done.”

It seems very likely to me that the Chatham County Commission will spearhead a change to the county zoning ordinance to bring it closer in line with the city of Savannah’s limit of five hens. But, as I asked a few days ago on this blog, is that limit high enough? I’d say no, at least for landowners with a certain amount of acreage and certain types of enclosures.

The Facebook group Savannah Backyard Chickens is planning to attend this Friday’s commission meeting, and it sounds from the latest SMN piece like some of the elected officials are anxious to reach an agreement:

County Commissioner Patrick Farrell said Friday he would like his fellow commissioners to explore the
possibility of allowing chickens in the unincorporated area. After being contacted by several residents requesting the change, Farrell said he plans to bring the matter up at Friday’s commission meeting.

“I think I’d like to look at it,” Farrell said. “There’s a certain following of people that own chickens or would like own them and take good care of them and not be a burden on their neighbors.”

I’m optimistic that this controversy can be sorted out in a reasonable way. And that an ordinance will be clearly written so that zoning officials will know what they are enforcing.

The issue of pit bulls running loose is likely to be a lot thornier. I raise a number of questions about dangerous dog ordinances in my City Talk column today, Stray dogs raise quality of life issues:

How do we distinguish between a problem dog and a pet that has simply gotten loose temporarily from an owner? How can we educate current and prospective dog owners about their responsibilities?

How much time should police put into enforcing leash laws, which are routinely violated in parks and on sidewalks?

Are there ways, as a friend of mine has suggested, of tracking the movement of strays by engaging citizens more directly? In these days of social media and advanced technology, there would seem to be a lot of options.

We’re not the only community facing questions about stray dogs.

When I first looked on the Internet for communities plagued by stray dogs, I read about problems in Bulgaria, South Africa and Armenia.

Closer to home, Saginaw, Mich., has a new ordinance in place. Seattle is likely to toughen its dangerous-dog ordinance.

Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio, are struggling with how to define and restrict dangerous dogs. Should breeds like pit bulls be targeted? Or should we just look at behavior?

I don’t have easy answers to any of those questions.

But it seems absurd that owners of dogs that are likely to attack people and pets cannot be punished in any way if those dogs get loose. It seems especially absurd if at the same time we are trying to ban chickens from backyards.

4 comments for “No charges if pit bulls run loose, but backyard chickens have to go

  1. July 4, 2011 at 1:41 am

    I’m sure that if the kid were to let the pit bulls out again to attack someone, they’ll be cited as well.

    There are soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo many Wilmington Island residents who keep chickens. It\\\’s ridiculous. I think the citation is necessary. People can\\\’t seem to control the chickens and they run loose seven by twenty four. I have had neighbors with chickens. No control whatsoever. More neighbors then followed suit, and the problem got bigger. I’ll have to take a walk down to the others’ houses to see if they have chickens. . . still. . . Hopefully they’re gone but I doubt it. I like the zoning rule on owning chickens. There’s not a damn thing wrong with that.

    It’s sad to hear that there was yet another pit bull attack but it really does sound accidental. Kids aren’t born violent. It sucks that had to happen. Pit bulls are good dogs if they are raised right!

    • bill dawers
      July 4, 2011 at 8:46 am

      I’m a bit confused by a couple of things in your comment.

      Just because a lot of people have chickens on Wilmington, that’s a reason to ban them? It seems that there is a lot of demand from island residents to have them. I would agree that chickens running loose could be grounds for individual citations, but not all are getting loose. And when they do get loose, no one gets killed or maimed. By the way, if you don’t even know if your neighbors have chickens, then what exactly is the problem?

      You suggest here that the pit bulls were returned to their owner and if they were let out “again” the owner would be cited. One of those dogs was euthanized on the night of the attack after someone had to shoot it so that it would let go of the boy’s face. The other was captured the next day and will not be adopted out.

      The main point of this post was to express puzzlement that we would be regulating animals as innocuous as chickens while not regulating animals as dangerous as pit bulls.

  2. July 5, 2011 at 11:10 am


    I think you are on point. And sometimes lunacy needs to be called out with a pot stirring title.

    I am frequently around two red nose pit bulls with my children. They are examples of the “raised right” variety. However, with that “raised right” comes the knowledge of the owners that they must be kept from getting out of their environment and they are never allowed to roam with children unless closely monitored. They are considered a vicious breed for a reason. They are stronger and more capable of inflicting damage should they so choose. The owners should be cited as the dogs were loose.

    The chickens can be a nuisance as well. I appreciate folks buying property where they have reasonable expectations of what types of activity will and won’t go on there. However, as a voting body, should the majority of residents decide that they wish to change the way the zoning works, then that is their right as well.

    I don’t think the issue is that we do something about one but not the other. However the situation does bring to light a glaring problem with both statutes.

  3. Sean Farrell
    July 6, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    -Great post! I’ll be interested in seeing the chicken battle unfold. I’m curious if these chickens are treated as pets or livestock, and how that would be determined.
    -as for the “pitt bulls”- There is an unfair stigma assigned to the “pitt bull” for a number of complicated reasons. I have heard that pitt bulls are a more aggressive breed, that their bite strength is off the charts, that they were bread to fight and kill.
    I am not an expert on this topic although I am a lover of all dogs and I do know a few of the misconceptions. -There is no such breed as a pit bull. It is a term used to label a number of breeds that are the product of the terrier and bull dog breeds. They were bred for desired traits like strength durability and disposition. They were working dogs and family pets. There are numerous breeds of dog that have similar stigmas yet none so widely accepted as true. Rottweilers, Doberman, German Shepherds, Boxers, Mastiffs Chows, and Sharpe are all large aggressive dogs that have been used by unscrupulous persons to perform in dog fights. They have instinctual behaviors and aggressiveness to be good guard dogs, to alert their owners of danger, and to prevent predatory attacks on livestock.
    Dogs share 98% of their DNA with the gray wolf. Many experts in the K9 world believe that small breeds likely comprise the majority of dog bites as their aggression is more tolerated because of their size. However, these bites are rarely reported for they do little damage and aren’t perceived as threatening.
    As April said in her comment and I must reiterate, it is the responsibility of all dog owners to insure that their dogs do no harm to any persons or property and that they should be held liable for their pets behavior.
    This reminds me of the old saying, “Guns don’t kill, people do” I don’t want to stir the pot or upset anyone, but I believe the popularity of the breed with the lower socio-economic classes is part reason for the stigma. It’s very complicated, but the “pit bull” isn’t nearly as popular in gated communities with golf courses as it is in urban areas where people use them for security. We demonize the things associated with minority culture because we don’t understand it.
    In closing, to recap….There is no such breed as a pit bull(there is an American pitt bull) but it is a term for a number of breeds of similar stature and pedigree. These dogs aren’t any more prone to violent behavior than any other large domesticated guard dog. All pet owners should be held responsible for the actions of their pets. Many pitt bull owners only see the loving loyal side of their dog and forget the harsh reality that they are dangerous.
    Don’t let ignorance demonize a much maligned group of terriers. Don’t excuse the negligent owners of these wonderful creatures. All dogs have the potential to be aggressive. Strong fearless dogs should be properly trained, and always supervised. Prosecute the owners to the maximum extent of the law!
    Keep us posted on Chicken Gate!

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