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Blurry Line

Misinterpreting ordinance results in death of two dogs.

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When pit bull owner Jessica Lytton returned home from a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles on May 24th, she got an unpleasant surprise. Animal Control officers were taking her three pit bulls and a stray she'd recently adopted out of her fenced-in backyard and loading them into their truck. She wouldn't be able to get her dogs back until she'd attended a hearing to determine whether her dogs would be deemed "vicious" under the city's vicious-dog ordinance.

A neighbor had reported that one of Lytton's pit bulls escaped the yard while she was away, and although the officers said the dog was back in the yard when they arrived, they'd observed two of the dogs fighting with one another. They said she'd have to attend the hearing to prove she wasn't breeding the dogs for fighting.

The ordinance states that dogs can be adjudicated "vicious" if a court can prove that the dogs are bred primarily or in part for the purpose of dog fighting or any other aggressive activity.

"I had a fence separating my boy pit bull and the stray from the two females, but somehow they'd gotten through to each other. The one that started the fight just had puppies six weeks ago," said Lytton. "That's normal dog behavior."

Her court date was set for June 4th, but the Animal Control officers did not show up, so it was rescheduled for the 18th. The dogs were to stay in the city's custody until a verdict was reached. On June 10th, Lytton received a call from the Memphis Animal Shelter informing her that two of her dogs had fallen ill with distemper. She says they informed her that she would need to pay an $800 boarding fee by the end of the day or the dogs would euthanized.

Since the case was still pending, her attorney Jorie Brownlow had Judge Tarik Sugarmon issue a restraining order against the shelter. However, the stray had gotten so sick it had to be euthanized the following day.

Lytton attended city court on Monday, and Sugarmon determined that she was not breeding the dogs for sport fighting and ordered the city to return them to her. He said the city should do more to make dog owners aware of the specifics of the ordinance. Some of the boarding fees were waived and she was allowed to retrieve her dogs. She was charged with failure to properly control her dogs.

She picked them up and took them to a vet, but the pit bull with distemper died an hour after she returned home. Another one is showing symptoms of heartworms. She says she has not decided if she will take action against the city.

Phone calls to Animal Control were referred to the city attorney's office. Calls to that office were not returned by press time. n

E-mail: bphillips@memphisflyer.com

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