For James and Melissa Lecker, the move across Wisconsin was a no-brainer. Melissa worked from her home office when she wasn’t traveling, and James had a job as a web developer in Wausau, 40 minutes away from their home in Steven’s Point. So they sold it, bought a fixer-upper in Wausau, and, on Jan. 4, moved their family of two boys, ages 3 and 7, and four dogs: two 13-year-old golden retrievers, a 3- or 4-year-old shih tzu, and a 1-year-old Yorkie.
Twenty days later, the Leckers’ fresh start took a decidedly sour turn.
A policeman knocked on their door. They invited him in, and quickly learned that he had the wrong address. But, before he left, he noticed the dogs. “Are all four yours?” he asked.
When Melissa answered yes, the policeman asked if she was aware of the Wausau ordinance that prohibited more than two dogs per home. She said she wasn’t, and he said he wouldn’t ticket them, and walked out the door. But that was only the beginning of a tangled doggie tale.
Doggone shameAs relieved as they were that the policeman wasn’t planning to turn them in, the Leckers knew they had to act. “We felt really bad that we were hiding something,” Melissa told TODAY.com.
So they contacted their local alderman. “We wanted to see if we could get some sort of variance, just until our older dogs pass away,” Melissa explained. After all, 13 is quite old for golden retrievers; Jesse has been unwell for a year already, so the Leckers know their pet’s time is coming. Even so, “Our alderperson talked to the Public Health and Safety Committee, but they said no,” Melissa said.
The Leckers got that news the night of Feb. 20. They were disappointed, to be sure, but decided to play the hand they’d been dealt: They contacted their realtor the next day, and had a For Sale sign in their yard by the day after that, even though they knew they’d be taking a huge loss.
The following night, while Melissa was out, two police officers came by and gave James paperwork detailing what the fines would be — $114 for every day they kept their four dogs in the city. “When I got home, I called them and said, ‘You saw the For Sale sign in our yard. Can’t you leave us alone until we move?’ ” Melissa recounted. “They said no, that was the law and they had to support the law.”
On Friday morning Melissa started contacting local media, and the story took off.
What the mayor said
Since then, things have gotten more muddled. Melissa spoke to the chair of the Public Health and Safety Committee — who had originally said the committee couldn’t help — and was told that they actually had been working behind the scenes to help all along: in fact, they were going to form a subcommittee on March 19 to deal with the issue.
But the committee had no sway over the police, so Melissa called the chief of police to see what kind of time frame they were dealing with on the fines. “I asked him, ‘When are you coming back? How long do we have before you come back and we have to get rid of the dogs?’” she recalled. “He said he wouldn’t give me a date.”
Meanwhile the story went national, and the subcommittee hearing was postponed until April. Melissa went right to Wausau’s mayor, James E. Tipple.
“Mayor Tipple told me we wouldn’t be cited, and that they’d been working on it all along,” Melissa said. “When I asked why, then, officers had come to our house to notify us of the fines, he said it hadn’t happened. I assured him it had, and that I had the papers, and he said he wasn’t aware of it.”
But the mayor told Melissa he was aware that many Wausau residents owned more than two dogs, and that the ordinance needed to be updated. The Leckers hope that happens.
“In Steven’s Point we were foster parents for children, but this house doesn’t have enough spare rooms to allow us to do it here,” Melissa told TODAY.com. “We thought, ‘Oh, well, we’ll just foster or adopt senior dogs instead, after Abbie and Jesse pass away.’ But with the two-dog limit, we can’t do that.”
The Leckers aren’t the only ones hoping for a resolution. “We bought a house that needs outside repairs, which we’ve already hired a contractor to do, so our neighbors all really want us to stay,” said Melissa. But if all four dogs can’t live there, there’s no chance of sticking around.
“Abbie and Jesse are from the same litter; I’ve had them since they were 8 weeks old, and they’ve been with me through everything. When I was 18 and moved out, they were my first dogs. When I couldn’t sleep, Abbie would stay awake and just keep an eye on me,” she added. “Jesse was always more mischievous, and Abbie kept an eye on her. Now that Jesse’s slowing down, the two younger dogs seem to help keep Abbie young.”
So, while they’re hoping they’ll be able to stay in their new neighborhood, the Leckers will do what they need to do for their dogs.
“They’re just my family,” said Melissa. “That’s it.”