LOWELL -- City officials euthanized two pit bulls Tuesday night after one of the dogs bit the owner, who was trying to break up a fight between the two animals inside his home.
Neither dog was registered, The Sun has learned, and that raises questions about how well the city's new pit-bull ordinance is working, officials acknowledged.
Lisa King, the dogs' owner, said the city only recently notified her about the new rules. Lowell's ordinance went into effect July 1, raising King's licensing fees for her two pit bulls from $20 to $120 annually. King said she lost her job in April and couldn't afford to pay.
In June, the City Council passed the new ordinance after more than two years of debate. That also followed reports of 16 attacks involving pit bulls in the city in less than five months last year.
"I'm so sick of these dogs," said City Councilor Edward "Bud" Caulfield, one of the main proponents of the pit-bull ordinance. "They're attacking people. It has to stop, and I think this ordinance is going stop it."
When asked how effective the ordinance would be at tracking the city's pit bulls if owners couldn't afford the fee, Caulfield said, "That's a good question, and I really don't know. If people want to have a pit bull, they're going to have to pay a $50 fee."
But only 24 pit bulls have been licensed in Lowell under a new $50-per-pit-bull system, and city officials say there are probably more unregistered.
There's no way to determine how many owners have failed to register their animals under the new rules unless city officials comb through the records of each of the 1,648 dogs licensed in Lowell this year, officials said.
Even then, it's difficult to tell.
"If someone has a mixed breed and if that's all that's in the license, it wouldn't be sufficient to determine whether the dog is considered a pit bull. There's no way to capture that information," said acting City Clerk Eric Slagle, saying some owners never register, while others don't report when they move or the dog dies.
"It's not like a car, where you register your car and there's a number attached to it," Slagle said. "Dogs don't have a number etched on them, so a lot of it depends on the animal-control officers who are out there on the ground and people coming in to renew their licenses."
King said she only found out about the new rules after an animal-control officer gave her a warning at the end of August after one of the dogs escaped from the fenced-in area around her home. The officer gave King time to register her dogs and, taking pity on her financial situation, provided her with dog food, according to King and police Capt. Randall Humphrey.
King said both pit bulls were spayed and neutered, as required under the ordinance, and added that she didn't allow the dogs out of her yard after she heard about the muzzle requirement. The only thing she lacked was the $50 licenses, which require owners to submit photo identification and a picture of the pit bull.
When reached yesterday, Humphrey said they plan to assess King the $100 fine per infraction for not properly registering her pit bulls.
Police were called to King's home Tuesday about 8:55 p.m., after her two pit bulls -- Jade and Jasper, a 1 1/2-year-old brother and sister -- got into a fight over food inside the family's home at 32 New York St., according to Humphrey and King. When Lisa's husband, Daniel, tried to pull the dogs apart, one of them bit him on his leg, police and King said.
Lisa King said her husband received 11 stitches at Lowell General Hospital for puncture wounds around his right knee. The couple signed over custody of the dogs to animal-control officers because the pit bulls were badly injured and they could not afford to pay the vet bills, Lisa King said.
Animal-control officials brought the dogs to Bulger Animal Hospital in North Andover and euthanized them, citing the severity of their injuries and their dangerousness, according to police.
"They didn't attack him and they've never attacked anyone," said Lisa King. "I asked them not to euthanize. I know it's hard because the vicious rap these dogs get, but these dogs were not vicious. These dogs were the nicest dogs."
Lisa King said she adopted the dogs in March from MSPCA's Nevins Farm in Methuen and paid the $20 registration fee before the new ordinance.
King said her family was forced to move shortly after she lost her job, and her husband had been unable to find welding work since January.
Caulfield said Lowell's $50 fee was based on similar pit-bull ordinances in Boston and Lynn. Boston charges a flat $50 fee for pit bulls. Lowell, additionally charges the standard dog license fee -- $10 annual for spayed or neutered dogs and $15 for all others. It was not immediately clear if Lynn, which charges a $25 pit-bull fee, had an additional fee.
Caulfield said the ordinance was drafted by the city's Law Department.
David Fenton, a city attorney, said the fee is meant to cover the additional clerical work involved in licensing pit bulls.
Fees for regular dog licenses go into a separate fund to support the city's animal-control operations, according to Tom Moses, the city's chief financial officer. Moses said he didn't know how the pit-bull registration fees will be spent.