When I first commented on Virginia’s new agricultural animal bill, HB 1541/SB 1026, I was cautiously optimistic. Agricultural animals were covered by Virginia’s animal cruelty statute, but they did not have the protections of a neglect or lack of adequate care statute equivalent to Section 3.2-6503’s adequate care requirements for companion animals. HB 1541/SB 1026 proposed a new statute, Section 3.2-6503.1, that would finally mandate standards for adequate care of agricultural animals.
HB 1541/SB 1026 and the addition of Section 3.2-6503.1 have generated a flurry of comments and criticism. Some of the criticism is directed towards exploitation of animals for food, clothing and other purposes – something that our society is unfortunately a very long way from addressing and prohibiting.
Other comments expressed a concern that the new agricultural animal bill would supplant – and virtually eliminate the use of – the animal cruelty statute as it applies to agricultural animals. This concern was the primary reason that I ultimately did not support HB1541/SB 1026.
A closer look at Section 3.2-6503.1 shows that the animal cruelty statute still applies to agricultural animals, and that Section 3.2-6503.1 will allow for intervention before treatment of agricultural animals rises to the level of cruelty.
Section 3.2-6503.1 requires owners to provide agricultural animals with “feed to prevent malnourishment,” “water to prevent dehydration, and “veterinary treatment as needed to address impairment of health or bodily function when such impairment cannot be otherwise addressed through animal husbandry, including humane destruction.”
By contrast, the animal cruelty statute prohibits depriving an animal (either companion or agricultural) of “necessary food, drink, shelter or emergency veterinary treatment.” The term “necessary” is not defined further in the statute.
Section 3.2-6503.1 will take effect on July 1, 2011, and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and the Office of the State Veterinarian are already training animal control officers about how to implement the new statute. The Office of the State Veterinarian is emphasizing with the animal control officers that Section 3.2-6503.1 does nothing to change the animal cruelty statute – and that it allows the officers to intervene in order to prevent the situation from rising to abuse and neglect.
According to Dr. Dan Kovich of the Office of the State Veterinarian:
“If it was cruelty before, it’s cruelty now—this bill is a tool for early intervention. Imagine two horses being kept on a bare dirt lot and not being provided with feed; one emaciated and one in good body condition. The first horse was, and remains, subject to the cruelty statute. The second horse cannot be demonstrated to suffer from a lack of necessary feed, and therefore no intervention can occur under existing law. This new statute will allow animal control officers to intervene simply because no feed is being provided, and therefore prevent the animal from actually having to suffer the process of malnourishment”
I am very relieved to know that officials see Section 3.2-6503.1 as a preventative measure – at least for food, water and veterinary care – that will augment Virginia’s animal cruelty statute. If used appropriately, animal control and law enforcement officers will now have a means to combat neglect of agricultural animals before the situation rises to the point of abuse and neglect.
One criticism that I still agree with is that the maximum penalties for lack of adequate care are far too light. As a Class Four Misdemeanor, the maximum penalty for agricultural animals is only a $250 fine. The penalty is the same for a first offense involving companion animals. Just last year, the General Assembly upped the ante for subsequent offenses involving companion animals – a move I hope will be forthcoming in future amendments to Section 3.2-6503.1.
Another critical issue is shelter and confinement standards for agricultural animals. Although the animal cruelty statute prohibits depriving an animal of “necessary shelter,” there is no clear guidance or definition for that term. Section 3.2-6503.1 does not address shelter. Organizations like The Humane Society of the United States are attacking agricultural animal confinement procedures nationwide. Perhaps the most notorious battle involved Proposition 2 in California, attacking the use of veal crates, battery cages and sow gestation crates. Although Section 3.2-6503.1 does not address these issues yet, we have to start somewhere. I can only hope that the General Assembly will use Section 3.2-6503.1 as a platform to address – and prohibit – these and other similar inhumane practices in the near future.
Here is the full text of Section 3.2-6503.1, which will take effect on July 1, 2011:
Section 3.2-6503.1: Care of agricultural animals by owner; penalty.
A. Each owner shall provide for each of his agricultural animals:
1. Feed to prevent malnourishment;
2. Water to prevent dehydration; and
3. Veterinary treatment as needed to address impairment of health or bodily function when such impairment cannot be otherwise addressed through animal husbandry, including humane destruction.
B. The provisions of this section shall not require an owner to provide feed or water when such is customarily withheld, restricted, or apportioned pursuant to a farming activity or if otherwise prescribed by a veterinarian.
C. There shall be a rebuttable presumption that there has been no violation of this section if an owner is unable to provide feed, water, or veterinary treatment due to an act of God.
D. The provisions of this section shall not apply to agricultural animals used for bona fide medical or scientific experimentation.
E. A violation of this section is a Class 4 misdemeanor.