When Jaune Sonnier moved to the Yakima area just over a year ago, she had to decide between living with her partner or keeping her dogs.
The two agreed that they couldn’t give up Noah and Naomi — two pit bulls they’ve had for years. So Sonnier moved to Union Gap and her partner moved to Yakima to take care of her mother with Alzheimer’s.
“She was dealing with everything and needed my support and the support of my dogs,” Sonnier said. “But we couldn’t have that without risking their lives and my job. The law that was supposed to protect me and that I believe in was tearing apart my family.”
During that time, Noah became sick with cancer twice. But Sonnier and her partner still couldn’t live together to support each other and a dog that is part of their family.
Sonnier had to appeal to Yakima’s city attorney even to be allowed to bring Noah into the city limits for a vet appointment — the only vet in the area with the machine Noah needed.
“At that point I became resentful and angry because in my job I do the best I can do uphold the law, but it tore my family apart,” she said. “How much more do these innocent dogs have to pay for some other owner and other dog’s mistakes from 30 years ago?”
Since then, Sonnier and her partner have settled her mother into a nursing home and moved in together in Union Gap, where the dogs are legal.
But Sonnier, who was outspoken against Yakima’s ban, said she can’t wait for it to be lifted so no other families have to go through the same ordeal.
“I want to walk my dogs without fear of them being taken away,” she said. “I’ll get to walk on the Greenway with my dogs without having to worry I’ve crossed between Union Gap and Yakima. Lifting the ban will give us more freedom of where to live and an opportunity to educate people who have been living in fear of these dogs.”
Yakima’s ban on pit bull terriers ends Sunday. And for the first time in more than 30 years, pit bull terriers can legally be brought into the city.
The Yakima City Council’s August decision to lift the ban wasn’t unanimous, with council members Holly Cousens and Kay Funk voting against it.
City residents are similarly split, with some expressing concern that lifting the ban will lead to an increase in the number of pit bull terriers in the city and more dog attacks.
But those who love the breed, or who have kept their dogs in the shadows for years, are rejoicing.
Sonnier isn’t the only person whose life was made more challenging by the city’s decades-old ban.
Morgana Holman, an animal advocate, said before she moved to Yakima with her pit bull-mix Walle several years ago, she thought she understood Yakima’s law would allow a dog that’s only 50 percent pit bull. But when she tried to get more information, she was advised to buy a house outside the city and avoid the issue.
“I’ve heard from several people who got into a dispute with a neighbor and the neighbor was so upset he called animal control and reported the pit bull living there, even though it wasn’t a problem and wasn’t related to the issue,” she said.
She worried that would happen with her dog, so her family tried to follow the advice and buy outside the city. But when that didn’t work out, Holman went through DNA testing to prove he was legal to reside within the city.
While the DNA kit was relatively easy to complete — she swabbed the inside of her dog’s mouth and the test came back two days later — the $80 price tag isn’t something every family can afford.
She also had to spend time tracking down the right members of city staff and determining how her dog — within the legal limit of pit bull DNA — could be legally registered within the city limits.
“Not everyone has access to (city staff), and without (them) I probably wouldn’t have been able to register Walle,” Holman said.
Even with the registration, she’s lived many days in fear that just walking her dog will prompt a neighbor or passerby to report him and Walle will be impounded.
“There was fear that even though I went through all the right channels to get him registered, someone could see my dog and he could be confiscated,” she said.
With the ban set to be lifted, Holman and Sonnier are ready to allow their dogs to be their own advocates.
“Pit bulls’ good nature should become known. It will eventually. People just need time,” Holman said. “It’s been 30 years since they’ve been out in public. I think even dogs that have been hoarded under the ban that are living in a family situation are going to be like Walle — they have a good nature and are going to make it and do well.”
Holman acknowledged some pit bulls live in situations that can lead them to become dangerous and should be euthanized or removed from the city. And those who are labeled potentially dangerous should, under the city’s dangerous dogs ordinance, be housed in kennels and not allowed in public, she said.
“The city’s just going to have to pull together while this gets sorted out,” she said.
Some remain wary
Many residents are still living in fear of what could happen starting Sunday, when pit bulls are legally allowed to be within the city.
Christina and Jason Fairchild, whose 17-year-old daughter was attacked by a pit bull this summer, say there are a few regulations the city could implement that would make them feel safer. But with the attack still fresh in their minds, they said they can’t help but worry.
“The pit bull bit into the skin of her knee and if it held on just a bit longer, it would have tore into the muscles and cartilage of her knee,” Christina Fairchild said.
Their daughter came across the pit bull while visiting a friend. She got into a fight with an acquaintance who owned the pit bull before it bit her.
“We called the Humane Society and reported it to the police but the people hid the dog outside of the city until they felt they could bring it back,” she said. “Our fear is if it could happen to our 17-year-old daughter while she was just visiting friends, it could happen to anyone.”
Jason Fairchild said because of a pit bull’s sheer size, children can’t always hold onto its leash. And he worries about the lack of a requirement that pit bull owners must buy insurance in case there’s a problem.
“Most people think we hate the dog. We don’t hate the dog,” he said. “We hate the irresponsibility of people who own the dog.”
So only allowing adults to handle the dogs and requiring insurance would make him feel more comfortable.
In an attempt to fight some of the irresponsibility of some pet owners, the Yakima Humane Society is launching two initiatives.
The first is to publicize a “common-sense approach to animal engagements” and help people understand the best way to act around dogs in public spaces, said Charles Stanton, the humane society’s executive director.
All dogs can bite. And often, those circumstances can be avoided by better interaction and care for the animals.
The two main points are to avoid seemingly abandoned animals and keep your pet on a leash at all times while on public property.
“It’s the proactive approach that helps to avoid any possible issues,” Stanton said.
By calling animal control to pick up a stray animal instead of doing it yourself, you’re asking the experts to help handle a situation where an animal is likely stressed and more likely to be aggressive.
And by keeping your animal on a leash at all times, you can ensure you’re responsible for your pet at all times and, as long as you can control it, it’s under control.
The Humane Society is also starting an Animal Advocate Day Camp. This will target middle school children to teach them the basics of how to engage with an animal safely in open spaces and how to be good “pet parents,” Stanton said.