City error leads to dismantling of Snohomish kennel

  • Sun Nov 29th, 2009 8:49pm
  • News

By Andy Rathbun Herald Writer

SNOHOMISH — Passion lives up to her name.

The American pit bull terrier bounces around on spring-loaded legs after a toy as seven other dogs whine with anticipation of their own workouts.

For owner Cheryl Caragan, the moment of play is bittersweet. City code dictates that homeowners like her, living on less than an acre, can have only three dogs. She has eight.

She will have to send five of her dogs away from her prize-winning kennel following a paperwork error by the city and an informal complaint by a neighbor. Passion may be headed to Texas.

City officials said they made an honest mistake, but Caragan said she was singled out because her dogs are pit bulls.

“Even though the city says this isn’t breed discrimination, it screams it,” said Caragan, 49.

The city’s error was made in January, before Caragan moved into her new home on a shared property with her parents in Snohomish. She filed an application for a kennel. The paperwork didn’t note that the city required her to have a lot that was larger than 40,000 square feet.

Her permit was approved.

“We don’t get many kennel requests, and so our receptionist apparently was not aware that kennel requests would also have to get approval from the planning department,” city manager Larry Bauman said.

Caragan, who also works as a mortgage broker, set up kennels in her garage and back yard. She had a 6-foot cedar fence built around the yard. She put up her dog memorabilia — a sign that says “Spoiled Rotten Pit Bull Lives Here,” and a key rack with a dog’s face on it.

She moved into the home with her dogs. Eight stay there now: Passion, Lola, Magnum, Hitman, Trina, ReCe, Vivie and Hot Rod Lincoln.

She breeds the animals occasionally, selling a few a year to exclusive buyers. She counts Ernie Sims, a Detroit Lions linebacker, as a customer. She emphasized that hers is not a puppy mill.

“I breed to continue these lines and place dogs with people that are willing to help in preservation,” she said.

Pit bulls can be controversial.

City officials in Monroe considered singling the dogs out in city code, but eventually decided against the move. Caragan herself said she has fought the breed’s image problem for years.

Her well-behaved pit bulls are still dogs, of course. They bark when strangers arrive or as Caragan rotates them through their workouts. That irritated at least one unnamed neighbor.

The neighbor brought the kennel to the city’s attention in September, and officials realized their mistake. Caragan was told she had to get rid of the extra dogs or face fines that would range from $100 to $500 a day.

She was shocked. She considered appealing, but after speaking to City Council members, she suspected she would lose. Officials offered to delay their enforcement until Jan. 22, giving her more time to move the dogs.

Each dog may be worth thousands of dollars, she said, but she won’t sell them. She wants to hold breeding rights and preserve their bloodlines. Given the time frame, she may send most to friends’ homes throughout the country.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” she said. “What do you think, I’m going to take the last of my breed stock, go have it spayed or neutered, send them to complete strangers and hope they take care of them?”

City officials and neighbors singled her out for a couple reasons, she said. Her breed touches a nerve and the code also has been selectively enforced, so homeowners with connections to city officials get a pass, she said.

“Believe me, there’s a lot of people in this town with more than three pets,” she said. “I was targeted. I feel that strongly.”

Owen Dennison, a senior planner for the city, said that’s not the case.

The code makes no mention of any dog breed and sets three as the magic number for any one type of animal. Caragan can have three dogs, three cats and three birds — not four of any one type of animal.

Dennison said a change has been made on the kennel application to avoid a repeat of the error, but ultimately, officials have to enforce the code.

“For the most part, the violations are brought to the city’s attention through citizen complaint or citizen inquiry,” he said. “My guess is if someone’s got four gerbils, no one’s going to complain.”

Caragan has yet to send any of the animals away. Letting go has been difficult. Her dogs have won awards from the American Dog Breeders Association and the United Kennel Club. She has no children. Her dogs are her life.

“Everyday it’s hard,” she said, beginning to cry. “I’ve talked to people across the country that are my friends and it’s probably going to cost me $3,000 to ship those dogs out, to have them in safe places. I won’t place them with just anybody.”

Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455, arathbun@heraldnet.com.