Every January when dog licenses come up for renewal, dog lovers at this ski town go wild with anticipation. They start counting the dogs rumored to have died or moved away with their owners, hoping that a few of the finite number of licenses will be up for grabs.
And if the license lottery leaves them empty-handed, they can always try pestering the mayor, who can issue his own licenses for good cause or compassion.
"It's the worst issue I deal with," said Mayor Tom Pollard, who is manager of Rustler Lodge. "The day after I was elected I got my first call -- I hadn't even gotten to the job. They disguised it as a question about garbage service, then finished with, 'Can I have a dog?' "
To protect the alpine watershed, an ordinance in this former silver town limits the number of dogs to 12% of the human population, with few exceptions. No four-legged visitors are allowed, even inside cars, and violators can go to jail.
For now, the town council keeps the lid at 42 licenses, even though it could add two more dogs under the formula tied to Alta's population of 370 old-timers, ski bums, business owners and resort employees.
"I never heard of a place limiting dog licenses," said Stephan Otto, a lawyer and legislative director for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which tracks dog ordinances. "It sounds a little European."
"It's almost impossible to get one," said Mark Hoffman, 56, a lawyer and an avowed ski bum. "It took me 11 years of trying. They'll have 17 people wanting a dog for only two or three licenses."
Alta occupies four square miles inside a national forest where a special act of Congress left Salt Lake City in charge of the water supply. The city and county police the canyons, keeping out nonresident or unlicensed dogs to curb bacterial contamination of streams and to protect Salt Lake's drinking water.
The scramble for dog licenses in Alta has people chatting about dearly departed Kali, which belonged to Alta's former mayor, Bill Levitt, and his wife, Mimi.
But the Levitts say they are not giving up the license. Under the ordinance, they have six months to find a new canine to romp with children at their Alta Lodge. Their shepherd mix, a stray they adopted at puppyhood, died of old age Dec. 4.
"She was the official greeter at Alta Lodge, a real sweetie for 14 1/2 years," Mimi Levitt said.
Property owners who live in Alta for at least six months of the year get first dibs on the dog licenses.
Any leftovers are distributed at drawings held at high noon by a town marshal. Next, they go next to part-time business- or property owners, then to seasonal employees.
"A person who wants a dog finds it hard to understand," Levitt said. "They'll say, 'Well, how about that guy? He has a dog.' "
It's too early to tell if any of the 42 licenses will become available in 2007, but that's why the mayor has the power of "dog pardon." He can throw dog lovers a bone, granting "compassion" licenses temporarily and signing off on things like dogs at weddings.
"It's one of the most critical issues I ever had to face," said Levitt, who was mayor for 34 years until last January. "It is not a fun thing. I asked the new mayor, 'Do you hate dogs?' He said, 'No, I just hate the procedure.' "
Deputy town marshal Tom Bolen says he has heard practically every excuse from visitors caught smuggling dogs. They claimed not to have seen the warning signs, thought they referred only to a leash law, or believed the ban was only for vicious dogs.
Three months into his job, Bolen says he has issued dozens of warnings and two citations. Violations typically are settled in justice court for $65, but repeat offenders risk 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The crime blotter, a must-read in the town's monthly newsletter, reveals actual and perceived violations of the 12-page dog ordinance.
Many are cited for "having a dog in the watershed," but one woman complained she was picking up "more than her share" of dog poop in town. Deputies can summon dog walkers anytime to show proof of a plastic bag for cleanup. Non-possession is a violation.
The area's handful of avalanche rescue dogs don't count against the licensed dog limit -- "as long as they have their little jackets on," Town Clerk Kate Black said. The same goes for service dogs for the disabled.
Maureen Hill-Hauck, executive director of the American Dog Owners Assn., called Alta's ordinance "totally ridiculous."
"No other town limits dogs. How can people live without dogs?" she said. "It sounds like a total and complete violation of a person's civil rights. How dare they?"
Alta has its own doubters who can be counted on to raise the deer-and-moose argument: "My gosh, look at all the wild animals up here that leave their tracings," as Black recounts it.
Town officials' rebuttal is that the manufactured or human food dogs eat makes for more potent poop than the forage wild animals browse.
But sometimes, despite the ordinance, a mayor just can't say no.
Sean Walton, manager of Alf's Restaurant on the slopes, shares a tiny apartment with his fiance and her invalid German shepherd atop a lift-ticket office at Alta. Their temporary dog license -- their second -- was good only through the end of the year. Walton and his fiance, a nurse, asked the mayor for another extension, long enough to get them to the next town drawing May 1, if anything was available.
The alternative, they said, was sending the dog back to the woman's ex-husband, a Colorado doctor who travels overseas doing surgery for Operation Smile. That would mean a future of dog kennels for 14-year-old Marta, who "gets real lonely," Walton said. "It would just kill me to see her live out the rest of her life without companionship."
Then came good fortune via the mayor.
"We're both really happy about it," Walton said. "The mayor was as nice as you could expect. We just ran into him at the grocery store and he said, 'You've got your permit.' "
Pollard said he was giving Walton a compassion license for the remainder of Marta's life.