Monday, Dec. 04, 2023 |
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Tearful testimony spurred broad support Tuesday for a bill to overhaul the county’s laws relating to dog attacks.
At a meeting of the County Council’s Parks and Recreation and Public Safety Committee, Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz presented a bill that would impose harsher penalties for the owners of dogs that attack people or their pets.
The bill would create within the county statutes a tiered system of penalties for the offense of “negligent failure to control a dangerous dog” that would impose more severe penalties based on the severity of the injuries caused.
Under that framework, a dog owner can be fined anywhere from $200 to $25,000 and imprisoned from 30 days to 10 years, depending on how badly injured the victims were.
The bill also requires animal control officers to seize a dog involved in such a violation.
Discussion of the bill was preceded by several victims of dog attacks speaking about their own experiences, including Alicia Kekela, daughter of 85-year-old Dolores Oskins, who was killed by six dogs that attacked her on Aug. 14 in Hawaiian Paradise Park. Oskins was taken to Hilo Medical Center in critical condition and died Sept. 7.
“This tragedy must never happen again,” Kekela said, adding that her father and uncle tried to rescue Oskins from the dogs, only to be attacked themselves, and it was only due to the chance arrival of a “good Samaritan” that her father and uncle were not killed as well.
Kekela said that most of the dogs that killed her mother are still with their owner, a neighbor of Oskins.
Other victims shared similar accounts of attacks leading to little to no repercussions for neglectful dog owners.
Honokaa resident Ravi Singh said his dog, on a leash, was attacked by two large dogs and viciously mauled to within an inch of its life. Singh’s dog “barely survived” after multiple veterinarian visits.
Despite this, Singh said the dogs that attacked his own dog were notorious in the area for attacking people, and the Honokaa police station gave him 60 to 70 pages of prior complaints against those same dog owners.
Margaret Bartelt, a Hawaiian Acres resident who was attacked by dogs in 2019 and required 10 stitches in her arm, said the owner of those dogs is often a no-show at court and has little incentive to take the matter seriously.
Kierkiewicz, after listening to the testimony of Kekela and the others, tearfully called for a brief pause to the meeting in order to compose herself.
“It’s so hard not to cry a waterfall after hearing this,” she said.
After the break, Kierkiewicz said the bill changes parts of the county code that haven’t been touched since 1983 — before she was even born, she said.
Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball agreed that it is “grotesque” that the county code is so inadequate to deal with dangerous dogs that it took a tragic death to force a change.
Puna Patrol Capt. Scott Amaral said the police department has received 243 dog complaints since 2019, although several people noted that many people simply never report dog incidents because of the weaknesses of the law.
Amaral said that the Oskins incident and other vicious dog attacks have been horrific enough to shake even officers who deal with murder cases, and said the bill is “sorely needed.”
However, he noted that because the bill will require a medical professional to assess the degree of a victim’s injuries — the bill makes distinctions between “bodily injury,” “substantial bodily injury” and “serious bodily injury” — charging a negligent owner with the appropriate offense will take time.
Other council members voiced their support for the bill, although Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder proposed a minor amendment to the bill that would establish a minimum time limit for how long a seized dog can be held. He suggested 10 days.
However, the committee voted unanimously to recommend the bill to the full council without any amendments.
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