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Benton County Town Ordinances At Odds With Returning Soldier And His Dog

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An Army veteran wants to move to Indiana once his military contract is over. Problem is: one member of his family isn’t welcome.

Wayne Tibbett has an emotional service animal named Zorro.

But Zorro is a pit bull and the communities Tibbett wants to move to prohibit owning that breed of dog.

More Than Man’s Best Friend

Elaine Stone is counting down the days until her daughter’s family comes home to the Hoosier state.

“I haven’t been close to my daughter for almost four years,” Stone says. “So, I can’t wait for my whole family to be together again.”

Her son-in-law Wayne Tibbett is stationed in New York and his military contract ends in May.

That’s when he plans to move his family back to Benton County, to the small town of Fowler or Oxford.

But both communities have ordinances that prohibit owning ‘vicious dogs’ –  specifically pit bulls.

The town of Oxford prohibits owning pit bulls.

That’s a problem for Tibbett because he has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and his pit bull Zorro has become much more than a man’s best friend.

“When Wayne gets upset or nervous or anxious, like when he goes in big crowds or a lot of people or a lot of confusion, his anxiety kicks up,” Stone says. “And, he’ll go home and just be with the dog and the dog helps him out so much.”

Service Animal Vs. Emotional Support Animal

Zorro is considered an emotional support animal, which is different from a service animal.

“A trained service animal recognizes and then responds and serves to stop the individual from repetitive or harmful behaviors or gets them away from that particular environment by nuzzling the individual or whatever the animal has been trained to do,” says Peter Berg, Technical Assistance Coordinator at the Great Lakes ADA Center.

That distinction is important because while emotional support animals aren’t protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they are under the Fair Housing Act.

And Berg says that means Tibbett can bring Zorro to town.

A city or town may need to modify a housing ordinance that may limit a breed of dog that can reside in that town or that people can have in that town under the Fair Housing Act,” Berg says. “What gets confusing is that the town would only be required to modify as it relates to allowing the individual to have the animal in their home. The town wouldn’t have to allow the individual to then take the animal out in public.”

Shifting Away From Breed-Specific Legislation

Several of Indiana’s largest cities have moved away from breed-specific legislation – that includes Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and Bloomington.

The city of South Bend just changed its ordinance last year, shifting the language from being breed-specific to behavior-specific.

“Any dog can be aggressive if it’s unaltered, if it’s untrained, under socialized, unsupervised,” says South Bend Councilwoman Valerie Schey. “And, so, really good animal care and control law should be written to address those issues.”

Schey ran on a platform to update the city’s antiquated animal control laws.

She says since the new ordinance went into effect, there haven’t been any major issues.

And the animal shelter’s euthanasia rate has dropped 16 percent over the past two years.

“A lot of these wonderful dogs that happen to be pit bull mixes are now getting a chance to be a loving family companion,” Schey says. “And, that’s what means the most to me.”

Back in Oxford, Elaine Stone is waiting on paperwork from her son-in-law’s doctor so she can go before the town council and ask them to allow Zorro in town.

She just wants her family to come home – pit bull and all.

These vets have done so much for everybody. They have committed their lives to the military to protect us and this is how they’re treated?” Stone says. “It’s not fair. He just wants to come home and have a nice life. And, we’re finding so many problems.”

Town officials in Oxford and Fowler declined to comment for this story.