Montcalm County commissioners continue to discuss dog-sheep issue

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 10:27 am on Thursday, August 22, 2013

STANTON — Abraham Lincoln once said, “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of liberty.”

Similarly, members of the Montcalm County Board of Commissioners are not agreed upon a definition of an almost century-old state law calling for a county to pay for damages sustained by dogs attacking livestock.

After a 20-minute discussion and two failed motions, commissioners are no closer to providing a farmer and his wife with financial restitution after a vicious dog attack resulted in the deaths of eight sheep.

Last April, commissioners previously considered a request from Kenneth Lund who lives in Fairplain Township near Sheridan. Lund wrote commissioners a letter detailing a Nov. 20, 2012, incident in which a flock of 28 sheep owned by Lund’s wife Deb were attacked by two neighborhood dogs. Six ewes were killed by the dogs and two more ewes had to be euthanized due to the severity of their wounds. The remaining sheep were all injured in some form or another.

The two dogs, Chewy (a rottweiler mix) and Mater (a Labrador mix), were found in Lund’s sheep pen and were killed by Lund. The dogs both had rabies tags and a Michigan State Police officer was able to locate the owner, Kelly Sue Hitsman of Sheridan. According to the police report, Hitsman told police her dogs got out of their pen sometime in the middle of the night and killed her goats. She had just picked up the dogs from Montcalm County Animal Control earlier that week after the dogs were found running at large.

Lund said he was informed by Animal Control that the county might be able to provide financial reimbursement.

According to a Michigan law dating back to 1919: “If a person sustains any loss or damage to livestock or poultry that is caused by dogs, or if the livestock of a person is necessarily destroyed because of having been bitten by a dog, the person or his or her agent or attorney may complain to the township supervisor or a township official or other qualified person designated by the township board of the township in which the damage occurred … Any owner or keeper of the dog or dogs shall be liable to the county in a civil action for all damages and costs paid by the county on any claim as provided in this section.”

Lund is requesting $450 each for the eight dead ewes ($3,600), $200 each for the damaged 18 ewes ($3,600) and $564.10 for a Central Michigan Equine Veterinary Services bill for a total of $7,764.10. He said he believes the damage done to the surviving sheep permanently reduced their lambing productivity.

Lund forwarded commissioners a letter from Dr. Thomas Barkham of the Almont-Dryden Veterinary Clinic in Almont stating the estimated value of an ewe is $350 to $450. Barkham also stated that devastated ewes abort, don’t breed, have small lambs, don’t milk or are damaged beyond repair and killed.

Last April, commissioners were not clear about whether Hitsman had provided Lund with any restitution in the matter. They recommended Lund take Hitsman to court for civil liability. If Lund was unsuccessful in this matter, commissioners said he had the option of coming back to the county for assistance.

The issue was revisited at last week’s Law Enforcement & Courts Committee meeting after commissioners learned that Hitsman has not yet provided Lund with any reimbursement. Montcalm County Controller-Administrator Chris Hyzer said he reviewed the situation with the county’s attorney and they determined the county is responsible for some of the damages.

Commissioner Steve DeWitt of Coral repeated his opinion in the matter, saying he thinks local state legislators should look into eliminating the state law.

“I believe the law from 1919 is outdated and no longer needs to be on the books,” he said. “I don’t believe the county should be in the business of reimbursing for dead poultry or livestock by stray dogs. The responsible party has been identified. The responsible party has admitted their responsibility and, when pushed, initially said they would like to pay and reimburse for Mr. Lund’s loss. Her dogs even killed her own animals that night. What’s fair to our taxpayers and what’s just fair overall is Mr. Lund should be seeking civil reimbursement from the dog’s owner.

“I also question his dollar amounts,” added DeWitt of the financial amount Lund is requesting. “Frankly, I think they were padded.”

Commissioner John Johansen of Montcalm Township agreed the law seems outdated and unfair, “but I don’t agree with breaking state law,” he said.

“If these were coyotes that killed these sheep, would the county be liable for the expense?” DeWitt wondered.

“My opinion is yes, the way I interpret the law,” said Commissioner Patrick Q. Carr of Lakeview, noting that the law makes reference to “stray dogs.”

“Could be a coyote is defined as a dog,” DeWitt agreed.

Johansen made a motion that the county pay $300 each for the eight dead sheep for $2,400 and $564 for the vet bill (minus the 10 cents) for a total of $2,964. No one seconded the motion, so it died for lack of support.

Then Commissioner Ron Blanding of Greenville changed his mind and seconded Johansen’s motion for the sole purpose of discussion. There was no discussion. Johansen cast the lone “yes” vote, so the motion failed.

“I think we will be derelict in duty if we leave the committee meeting and do not take some action in some direction to resolve this issue,” Johansen declared. “We are elected here to solve issues that come before us. These people are within their legal rights to ask their county for support. Somebody needs to do something.”

Carr, who was not allowed to vote at the meeting as he is not a member of the Law Enforcement & Courts Committee, suggested committee members approve Hyzer’s recommendation that the county pay $400 each for the eight dead sheep for $3,200 and $564.10 for the vet bill for a total of $3,764.10. Johansen made the motion, but no one seconded it, so it died for lack of support.

Johansen moved that the item be placed on the agenda for discussion at the full board meeting, which is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Monday. Finally, his fellow committee members agreed.

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