Dog days (and nights)

A woman’s long quest to muzzle a neighbor’s barking dogs prompts city officials to consider getting tougher on loud canines

Photo By Jill Wagner

From the upstairs window of her house in Del Paso Heights, Joanne Magram could look directly down onto her neighbor’s yard and see the three chained pit bulls. She pointed to a metal post jutting from the ground and explained that that was where the female dog had been chained up until a week earlier, when it had been moved to the shade of a tree on the far side of the yard. Near the house, lying in the sun, the two males were still visible.

But being able to see these dogs was not her problem. Hearing them was.

Though the dogs were often quiet during the heat of the day, she said they barked incessantly for most hours of the evening and night. And they’d been doing it for over a year, Magram claimed. Already suffering from two endocrine diseases, she said the barking caused her acute amounts of physical, mental and emotional stress.

Since March of 2001, when the barking first became a problem, Magram and her domestic partner have sent a barrage of e-mails, letters and phone calls to various departments of the City of Sacramento, from Animal Control Services all the way up to Mayor Heather Fargo.

Despite her pleas that something be done, and despite the city ordinances that declare excessive dog barking to be unlawful, Magram had nothing but problems getting the city do anything about the nuisance.

“The city only told us what they couldn’t do,” Magram said, “and why they couldn’t help us.”

City ordinance 8.68.200L prohibits “the keeping of any animal, fowl or bird which by causing frequent or long continued noise shall disturb the comfort or repose of persons in the vicinity.”

Magram cited this and other ordinances in her communications with the city. She also told them she felt her neighbor’s dogs were not being properly cared for. Animal Control did make visits to the neighbor’s property and cited the owner of the dogs for a few violations, but still the barking continued.

And so did Magram’s complaints.

To Magram, there seemed to be a conflict between the ordinances and the city’s ability to enforce them. She couldn’t understand why the police would respond to a complaint about loud music, but every time she called them about the barking dogs, they referred her to Animal Control. And when she called Animal Control during the hours that the barking was at its worst—late at night—there was no one on duty who would respond. She felt she was caught in a vicious circle of bureaucratic buck passing.

In a letter to Senior Animal Control Officer Pete Alarcon, dated six months after she first began voicing her grievances, a persistent and tenacious Magram vented her frustrations: “Is there some reason why animal control can’t enforce an ordinance against an animal that is a total nuisance…? Could you please respond to my letter just this once and explain to me once and for all why you and your agency will do nothing about the problem…?”

The glitch, according to City Animal Manager Hector Cázares, is that state law prohibits Animal Control Services from issuing citations in barking cases because Animal Control is not the victim of the nuisance. The victims—those who witness the violation—must initiate a private person’s arrest, otherwise known as a citizen’s arrest.

“The onus is on the victim to make their case in court,” Cázares said.

However, Magram and her partner were afraid of taking this route because they believe that their neighbor is dangerous. Initiating a criminal action against him would expose their identity to him, something they were afraid of doing in a direct way. For this reason, SN&R didn’t contact and isn’t identifying Magram’s neighbor, but Magram is identified because of the high profile she has since assumed on the barking issue.

The other option, suggested by Pete Alarcon, was mediation, which he found had frequently been a successful way of dealing with these types of cases. Alarcon even offered to act as the mediator, getting both parties together to work out a solution. But although other residents of the area were bothered by the noise, none were willing to join Magram in mediating with the owner of the dogs. And she wasn’t willing to do this on her own.

In the meantime, Magram’s health had begun to deteriorate. Recovery from the two endocrine diseases (hypothyroid and Addison’s disease) was expected to take years, and she had been making progress. But with the almost non-stop barking outside her window, which she describes as a kind of “mental rape,” she began developing an anxiety disorder.

She went to see a crisis counselor to help her cope. She began taking medications for panic attacks, as well as sleeping pills. At one point, in June of this year, she had to take heavy amounts of steroids to stay out of the hospital because the barking had exacerbated her Addison’s disease. Self-employed as a home organizer, she said she was eventually unable to work.

It is not only her ordeal with her neighbor that got Magram motivated to do something about the barking ordinances. Having worked for Animal Control in the mid-1990s, Magram has firsthand experience with the nature and number of complaints that come into the department. Eight months of her time at Animal Control was spent in dispatch, where she estimates she received about 10 barking complaints a week. She recalled people crying on the phone, begging for help. But at that time, she said, there was no ordinance and nothing Animal Control could do.

Despite her health problems, Magram has twice attempted to draw attention to the problem of excessive dog barking in general by going on hunger strikes. She said the first, in February, lasted 17 days; the second, in June, 10 days. There was no media coverage of these strikes, however, and because they weren’t done in public, they seemed little more than threats fueled by her frustrations.

Magram notified city officials of her hunger strikes. But while sympathetic with her plight, they remained at a loss to solve the problem. The fact that they couldn’t cite the owner for a noise violation, combined with Magram’s refusal to initiate a private person’s arrest or to seek mediation, “essentially tied our hands,” wrote Cázares in an e-mail to Magram.

“Enforcing barking is probably one of the most difficult things to deal with in the whole country,” Cázares later explained. He doesn’t know of a single city that has an effective solution to the problem. Agreeing that the issue is by no means limited to Magram’s case, he added that hers was unique because of her refusal to confront her neighbor.

Finally, in June, after over a year of suffering, Magram and her partner held a meeting at their house to discuss exactly what could be done. Hector Cázares, Pete Alarcon, Deputy City Attorney Susana Wood, and Terence Schanz, an administrative assistant to Councilmember Sandy Sheedy, were all in attendance, as well as other residents of the neighborhood who had grievances against the barking dogs.

They decided that the only way to pursue action against the owner while protecting their identities would be to have the city bring a civil suit against the owner on behalf of the victims. In a civil suit, the identity of the accusers can be protected, while in a criminal action, the accused would have the right to know who was initiating the complaint. At the time this story went to press, the outcome of that suit was still pending.

Magram, though still plagued by the barking, was pleased that a solution had been found. In the long run, however, she has plans to remedy more than just her own situation. “I’m angry that the laws don’t protect the citizens,” she says. One of the first steps in her plan is to form a coalition called Citizens Against Barking to bring attention to the issue.

She has proposed and outlined a detailed change in Animal Control’s procedures regarding barking complaints. This would involve allotting one Animal Control officer to deal solely with barking complaints, as well as initiating a strict structure of compliance measures against owners of loud dogs.

In Magram’s scheme, first a warning would be given and barking collars or other anti-barking devices would be mandated. (Barking collars are worn like regular dog collars, but emit a high-frequency sound or a spray of citronella every time the dog barks, thus deterring it from doing so.) If there were no compliance, a fine would be imposed, steep enough to motivate the owner to comply. If there were still no compliance, the owner would have to either surrender the dog or risk jail time, in addition to the fine.

Magram has no illusions that such a change could be enacted with just a snap of the fingers. But she’s bracing herself for an activist’s challenge. The frustrating nature of her case already has city officials thinking about what could be changed to put more of a bite in the barking ordinance.

Cázares sees no real conflict between the city ordinance that bans loud animal noises and the state law that prohibits Animal Control from being able to do much about enforcing it. The state law, he said, is designed to prevent Animal Control from being drawn into disputes between neighbors.

While he doesn’t think it likely that more leverage will be given to Animal Control in terms of what they can do, he does feel that the ordinances could be strengthened. For example, individuals who have had several violations could be banned from owning animals.

In light of Magram’s case, Cázares also sees a need for better dissemination of information on how victims of excessive barking can remedy their situation. Instructions on how to initiate a private person’s arrest or mediate with a neighbor should be more readily available to the public, he said.

Councilwoman Sheedy agrees. She said she’s seen evidence not just of barking violations, but also of dogs being trained for fights and of abusive conditions in which animals are kept. She also notes a rash of dog attacks on children in the past few months due to animals not being properly chained or penned.

“This affects the quality of life,” she said. “People need to be held responsible for their animals.”