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Jumping Through Hoops for a Dog License
Town Places Strict Limits on Pet Population
By PAUL FOY
ALTA, Utah (Jan. 3) - Every January when dog licenses come up for renewal, dog lovers at this ski town go wild with anticipation, panting for a shot at the finite number up for grabs.
They start counting the dogs rumored to have died or moved away with their owners. And if the license lottery leaves them empty-handed, they can always try pestering the mayor, who can issue his own licenses for good cause or compassion.
"It's the worst issue I deal with," said Mayor Tom Pollard. "The day after I was elected I got my first call - I hadn't even gotten to the job. They disguised it as a question about garbage service, then finished with, 'Can I have a dog?"'
To protect the alpine watershed, an ordinance limits the number of dogs to 12 percent of the human population, with few exceptions. No four-legged visitors are allowed, even inside cars, and violators can go to jail.
For now, the town council keeps the lid at 42 licenses, even though it could add two more dogs under the formula tied to Alta's population of 370 old-timers, ski bums, business owners and resort employees.
"I never heard of a place limiting dog licenses," said Stephan Otto, a lawyer and legislative director for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which tracks dog ordinances. "It sounds a little European."
Alta occupies 4 square miles inside a national forest where a special act of Congress left Salt Lake City in charge of the water supply. The city and county police the canyons, keeping out nonresident or unlicensed dogs to curb bacterial contamination of streams and protect Salt Lake's drinking water.
The scramble for dog licenses in Alta can get a tad ghoulish. People are chatting about the dearly departed pet of Alta's former mayor, Bill Levitt, and his wife, Mimi. But the Levitts say they are not giving up the license and have six months to find a new Fido.
Property owners who live in Alta for at least six months of the year get first dibs on licenses. Any leftovers are distributed at drawings and they go next to part-time business or property owners, then lastly to seasonal employees.
It's too early to tell if any of the 42 licenses will become available in 2007, but that's why the mayor can throw dog lovers a bone, granting "compassion" licenses temporarily and signing off on things like dogs at weddings.
"It's one of the most critical issues I ever had to face," said Levitt, who was mayor for 34 years. "It is not a fun thing. I asked the new mayor, 'Do you hate dogs?' He said, 'No, I just hate the procedure."'
Deputy town marshal Tom Bolen said he's heard practically every excuse from visitors caught smuggling dogs. They claimed not to have seen the warning signs or thought they referred only to a leash law or believed the ban was only for vicious dogs.
Three months into his job, Bolen said he issued dozens of warnings to illegal dog walkers and two citations. Violations are typically settled for $65, but repeat offenders can risk 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The area's handful of avalanche rescue dogs don't count against the licensed dog limit - "as long as they have their little jackets on," Town Clerk Kate Black said. The same goes for service dogs for the disabled.
Maureen Hill-Hauck, executive director of the American Dog Owners Association, called Alta's ordinance "totally ridiculous."
"No other town limits dogs," she said. "It sounds like a total and complete violation of a person's civil rights. How dare they?"
Alta has its own doubters, who point out that wild animals routinely leave droppings. But town officials say manufactured dog food makes for more potent poop.
Sometimes, despite the ordinance, a mayor just can't say no.
Sean Walton shares a tiny apartment with his fiance and her invalid German shepherd. Their temporary dog license - their second - was good only through the end of the year. Walton asked the mayor for another extension, long enough to get them to the next town drawing May 1.
The alternative, they said, was sending the dog back to the woman's ex-husband, a Colorado doctor who travels overseas, meaning a future of dog kennels for 14-year-old Marta.
Then came good news: Pollard said he was giving Walton a compassion license for the remainder of Marta's life.
"We're both really happy about it," Walton said. "The mayor was as nice as you could expect. We just ran into him at the grocery store and he said, 'You've got your permit."'