The following article by David Strange originally appeared in The Courier-Journal on 15 Jan 2014. It is archived here with additional information for your reading enjoyment.
With January marking the start of the 2014 Kentucky Legislature general session, let me tell you about a controversial state law that was passed over one hundred years ago, led by a man from Bullitt County.
Some might say that it's a dog of a story, and I can partly agree!
It is also a story of a simple idea that became very complicated. Laws have a way of doing that.
In 1902, Ed Croan, Representative for Bullitt and Spencer Counties, was concerned with damage being done to farmers' livestock by uncontrolled dogs. He began urging the Kentucky General Assembly to pass a dog tax of one dollar per dog to help compensate sheep owners who lost sheep to dog attacks. Any surplus money would go to schools. Failing at first, he pressed again in 1905. He appears to have been nearly alone in his quest at the beginning, as shown in this article from The Citizen (Berea, Ky., December 7, 1905).
Urges Dog Tax Law.
Frankfort, Ky., Dec. 6. - Representative Ed Croan, of Bullitt County, was here to urge the governor to indorse in his message what is known as the "Croan dog tax law." Croan is said to be the only man in Kentucky that ever urged passage of a dog tax law.
Croan was not deterred. In February 1906, The Paducah Sun (Paducah, Ky., 1906) reported:
The "Poetry" Did the Work.
Frankfort, Ky., Feb. 2 - The recital of the following poem by Representative Ed Croan won the day for his "dog" bill, which was passed by a vote of 65 to 21 in the house:
The farmer makes a living by the sweat of his brow,
The fruit of his farm and the milk of his cow;
He pays big taxes on horses and hogs,
And favors a tax on blameworthy dogs.
Had Caesar opposed such a measure in Rome,
The raisers of sheep would have torn down his home;
And the star of his glory, which greater did wax,
Would have waned from the time he opposed a dog tax.
As a new tax, of course it was controversial, to say the least.
Pranksters were quick to show their displeasure at Ed Croan's law. The Bullitt News of February 2, 1906 reported a story that Edith Blissett transcribed this way:
"Representative Ed Croan, who introduced, 'fit' for, and passed the famous 'Dog Tax' law, owns a big interest in the Louisville Spoke and Bending Company and the employees at the plant in Louisville are sorry the bill was ever introduced or heard of. Last Wednesday, two days after the bill passed, two cars of lumber were opened at the Louisville plant, and one contained ten dogs, and the next five dogs, all alive and yelping lustily. When released from their temporary prisons, the 'sheep destroyers' fled in all directions. The workmen believe it was a joke on Ed Croan, but as they had all the trouble with the dogs, they fail to see the point."
Things quickly got more serious.
The actual law was pretty lengthy, detailing such things as who keeps the records and what records are kept. For example, the law required describing each dog. It addressed the issue of how such a law would actually be enforced. Transforming a thought into an actual written law can be far more complicated than many people might think.
While offering some protections for the dogs, the law also allowed for killing those whose license tax was not paid. The editor of The Bullitt News wrote on March 9, 1906 that ex-sheriff Bert Hall had been appointed official "Dog Killer" for Bullitt County under the Croan law. The paper stated that folks could bring "worthless dogs" and fifty cents to Hall and he would guarantee that "all dogs killed to stay dead or money refunded." As gruesome as that sounds, even if meant in jest, apparently it was worse. Many people chose to kill their dogs, or dump them somewhere, rather than pay the dollar tax.
The law did apparently have the intended effect of helping to protect farm animals, while also adding funds to school programs. But the unwritten law of "unintended consequences" also held sway with the killing of so many dogs. A 1908 editorial in The Glasgow Times stated in part, "The law is paying havoc with the dogs, however, and the assessor's figures show that thousands have been slaughtered in the last twelve months. In 1907 over 180,000 dogs were reported by the assessors, and this year but 142,000 have been found."
...It is not known how many dogs were simply not reported, despite a possible $25 fine.
Attempts were made to repeal the law, but many thousands of sheep farmers supported it for the very real protections that it was providing. The Kentucky Court of Appeals declared it constitutional when brought there as part of a law suit.
Ed Croan died on July 4, 1908. C. M. Crowe wrote at the time, in part, "...his family has lost a true and faithful father and husband, Bullitt county one of its most enterprising citizens..."
Whatever one might think of the law itself, Ed Croan had stood courageously for his cause.
His death hardly interrupted the turmoil surrounding the law. Over the years, many changes were made. Today, each county decides its own such animal "tax". Indeed, there is even controversy about whether it should be called a tax or a fee. In Bullitt County today, there is a $10 license "fee" for each dog or cat, if the animal is "fixed"; $20 if it is not. The law is laxly enforced. According to several sources, the money currently goes into the county general fund, rather than directly to any animal protection. The county does fund the local animal shelter. Local attorney Jim Winchell believes that the current fee is actually a tax on pet owners, since any assessment imposed to raise money in excess of what is needed to defray costs is a tax. He would like to see the tax revenue used to make the Bullitt County Animal Shelter a "No Kill Shelter" where all adoptable and treatable animals are saved.
And so, the wrestling of law and intent goes on, as it has for centuries. At least as far back as the Ten Commandments, man has found it difficult to write infallible law.
Good luck to the 2014 Legislature in trying to do so again this year.
Copyright 2014 by David Strange, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.