Animal rescuer worried about chilling effect of new Fort Smith ordinance

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 2,759 views 

While some amateur rescuers are worried that a new animal transfer ordinance in Fort Smith could hurt their efforts to place strays living on the streets into loving forever homes, city officials say the worry is unwarranted.

The Fort Smith Board of Directors unanimously passed an ordinance Feb. 7 that makes it illegal to transfer an animal in the city limits unless properly licensed, and would levy a $600 fine on anyone in violation of the ordinance. The ordinance states the transfer of ownership of animals, including selling, trading, giving away or giving as gifts, is prohibited in the city limits without a proper license with some exceptions.

The prohibition does not apply to retail animal sales businesses operated from a permanent physical location owned or leased by the business, properly zoned and having a properly issued business license. It also does not prohibit a home occupation location that sells animals if it has a proper home occupation license and proper business license.

There are several individuals in the city who regularly rescue stray cats or dogs, and the strays are often pregnant. They then get the animals veterinary care, take care of the offspring and place all the animals in homes. Before doing so, they get the animals the required vaccinations and spay or neuter the animals or have agreements with new owners regarding spay or neuter.

“I work diligently with other cat rescuers not working with non-profit rescues, with years of experience in recognizing unsafe situations, such as hoarding, neglect and abuse, while evaluating the cats health for any possible diseases they are prone to, such as ringworm, worms of any kind, upper respiratory infections or (URI), and work to get them into a safe situation, such as a foster home, and medicated with flea treatment, worm medication and topical antibiotics for the eyes if needed,” said Lindsay Vickery of Fort Smith.

Vickery has rescued, vaccinated, microchipped and spayed or neutered more than 30 cats since summer of 2021 just by fundraising on social media with no financial backing from local rescue groups. The 30 cats were rescued from within a two-block radius of her home. Vickery said the work she and others like her do is important to the city, even if they aren’t classified as a for-profit or non-profit animal rescue business.

“The non-profit organizations in our area are currently extremely overwhelmed with the stray population that is wreaking havoc in our city. If it isn’t a need for massive funding for vet bills, medication and treatments, it’s the need for food, litter, foster homes, and other very crucial things to allow these stray animals to recover from illness or just live a safe and happy life,” Vickery said. “It is important for people like me to continue to help these rescues so that we can lift the financial weight off of their shoulders, and help save these animals without having to overwhelm local rescues any more than they already are.”

But the new ordinance states that anyone transferring ownership of an animal two or more times during a six-month period will be considered operating a business and can be fined. Anyone in violation of the ordinance will be charged with a misdemeanor offense that is subject to a $600 fine.

Vickery’s concern is the ordinance and the fear of a fine will hurt those, like her, who are trying to help the city get control of the stray animal population.

“With this ordinance in place, it will actually discourage the people of the city who are willing to foster and help people without a nonprofit to back them up, because of the fear that they could possibly get into trouble for doing a good thing, which is just helping an innocent animal from an unsafe situation,” Vickery said.

City Director Lavon Morton said the ordinance is specifically written to not hurt those working to rescue strays and get them into homes where they will be cared for properly. The ordinance, he said, is more geared to stop those who have signs posted on the street corners or front yards of dogs or cats for sale and those posting animals for sale on social media sites, such as Nextdoor and Facebook.

“Anyone who is a rescue, even individuals, have a history, some type of history, that shows they are doing this. This ordinance will not hurt them. They will be able to keep doing what they are doing without any fear of fine,” Morton said.

Though Morton believes the ordinance is written so as not to punish rescuers, Vickery said it could have a chilling effect on those wanting to help strays.

“Too often, good people turn a blind eye because of ordinances like this one. It has good intentions (getting rid of … backyard breeders), but it hurts the people who are doing the most good,” Vickery said. “Since losing the humane society, the animals that might have been rescued and rehomed have been left to the streets. This ordinance discourages people from accepting animals from good sources just because they don’t want to go against the law. It also discourages new rescuers because most to all of them cannot afford the fees that would be associated with the fines and misdemeanor charges put against them.”

While it may seem like a burden on the Fort Smith Police Department, which is tasked with enforcing the ordinance, Morton said he does not see it as something that will add considerably to their workload.

“We are not expecting the police to be monitoring social media sites for people selling pets without a license or driving around looking for signs,” Morton said. “We have a large community of caring citizens who are constantly posting about lost dogs or stray dogs on social media. These are people who care. These are the people, we think, who will call the police when they see (activity that violates the ordinance.) I know that I will call if I see a sign or someone posting. That is how this will work – how the ordinance can be enforced,” he said.

This is just the first step the city is taking to rework its animal control ordinance in an attempt to control the excessive stray population in the city. City Administrator Carl Geffken said Feb. 7 that city staff is working to overhaul the city’s municipal code regarding animals, including a spay and neuter clause. Those changes will be brought to the board in an upcoming study session, Geffken said.

The spay and neuter clause is something area rescuers – both those licensed and those who are volunteers – have voiced they want to see happen sooner rather than later.

“Without any spay/neuter laws in place, people will continue to allow animals to overpopulate, resulting in more overwhelmed rescues and a more substantial lack of funding,” Vickery said.