Although officials may understand your position in relying on the written statements, the law does provide for a civil penalty of up to $250 for noncompliance. This goes for the staff member’s animal cruelty conviction and the director’s neglect conviction, because the law makes it clear that it is your duty to update the statements if anything changes. The law imposes the same duty to obtain these statements for Virginia poundsand shelters.
The animal abuser bill would require adults convicted of felony animal cruelty or animal fighting to register in person with the sheriff of the county or city where they live, and to re-register annually. The sheriff would have to notify every residence and business within a ½ mile radius of the abuser’s residence within ten days of the initial registration. The abuser’s information would also be kept in a central registry with the State Police, and posted publicly on the State Police website.
As a former public defender who struggled with the implications of sex offender registration on my clients, I have to give some credence to people like Wayne Pacelle of HSUS who have reservations about registries such as these. But I do think that well crafted registries can serve a function. This is particularly so with animal abuse registries, when jurisdictions like Virginia impose duties on rescues, pounds and shelters to report and update personnel information. Registries would also help to track puppy mills, dog fighting rings and animal hoarders.
Over a period of years, Ms. Thompson, along with her purported rescue, Pet Rescue Foundation, has had from 100 to 300 dogs on her property. When times were too tough for Ms. Thompson to care for the animals, she would call for help. Individuals and several local rescues – Homeward Trails, A Forever Home and HART – answered the call by donating food, taking in animals, and spending thousands of dollars on veterinary care.
But the do-gooders realized something was amiss when the number of dogs on Ms. Thompson’s property did not decrease, and the animals they pulled from the property continued to show serious medical conditions. Left with no options, they opted to present evidence to a Goochland County magistrate, who charged Ms. Thompson with failure to provide adequate care for the dogs.
The complainants successfully prosecuted the case in Goochland General District Court, and Ms. Thompson appealed. Last week, Commonwealth Attorney Claiborne Stokes presented evidence of six dogs in Ms. Thompson’s care to Goochland County Circuit Court Judge Cullen.
Sid on site and on the chain
The first dog Judge Cullen heard about was Sid, a gorgeous Akita mix who was left chained in Ms. Thompson’s driveway. Although Virginia law does not prohibit tethering a dog, it does require any tether to be at least three times the length of the animal, from the tip of the nose to the base of the tail. Sid is 45” long. The chain Sid was on was only about 1 ½ times his length – half of what was required by Virginia law. (The beautiful black and white photo in this post is Sid — off of his chain and happy in his new home!)
The remaining five dogs suffered from a variety of untreated ailments, with the common denominator being heartworm.
The most egregious of the five was Elizabeth, a sweet Chow mix who could barely get around due to arthritis, a neurological condition and age. Elizabeth’s ears were torn up by fly strike, and she had open wounds on her back where insects had attacked her. Elizabeth was rescued in October 2009, and taken to the veterinarian the next day. Elizabeth was underweight, starved for human interaction and filthy with flea dirt. She tested positive for heartworm and hookworm. Elizabeth was successfully treated, and currently lives with a foster.
Two other dogs, Gingersnap and Birdy, were rescued by Homeward Trails in December 2009. Both tested positive for heartworm. Birdy also tested positive for whipworm. They were both successfully treated.
Gingersnap on the property
Birdy resting in her new home
The last two dogs, Jack-O and Aunt May, were rescued in April 2009. Both tested positive for heartworm. Jack-O also suffered from kidney disease which made it unsafe to treat the heartworm, and he ultimately had to be euthanized. Aunt May also suffered from other ailments along with the heartworm, and was euthanized.
Ms. Thompson’s defense was a claim that she was treating the dogs on her property with ivermectin for heartworm prevention. However, her heartworm protocol did not involve veterinary care or testing for heartworm before administering the preventative. She presented no records whatsoever for the dogs in her care – no veterinary records, no heartworm tests, and no information that she was weighing the dogs to ensure proper dosage, giving the proper amount of ivermectin or keeping a consistent schedule.
Judge Cullen saw through Ms. Thompson’s alleged defenses, understood the duties imposed by the law, and convicted on all counts. For a variety of reasons, many, many more counts could have been presented for the numerous other animals who suffered on Ms. Thompson’s property. Nonetheless, these six convictions represent a great victory – against the notions that it’s OK to tether animals and self-medicate without consulting a veterinarian. Additionally, these convictions will bar Ms. Thompson from being able to operate a rescue or serve as a foster for a rescue.
I’m grateful for the role I played in counseling the complainants and earning some justice for these dogs. Hearty congratulations to all involved with this trial!
DISCLAIMER: CASE RESULTS DEPEND UPON A VARIETY OF FACTORS UNIQUE TO EACH CASE. CASE RESULTS DO NOT GUARANTEE OR PREDICT A SIMILAR RESULT IN ANY FUTURE CASE UNDERTAKEN BY A LAWYER.
HB 1716 (patron: James M. Scott, Ward L. Armstrong and Charniele L. Herring), allowing a court to include in a protective order provisions prohibiting harm to a companion animal and damage to any item of personal property. Grade: A. Result: This bill got kicked around last year, and fortunately came back up again this session. The House decided to incorporate this bill with HB 2063. The latest language of HB 2063 does not specifically list companion animals, but it did add the italicized language for a protective orders involving domestic abuse, stating a court may: “Prohibit acts of family abuse or criminal offenses that result in injury to person or property.” For non-domestic protective orders, similar language was added: “Prohibiting acts of violence, acts of sexual battery, or acts of stalking in violation of § 18.2-60.3 force, or threat or criminal offenses resulting in injury to person or property.” This puts petitioners in the position of arguing their companion animals are property. Better than nothing? I’m not so sure.
The General Assembly has a complete mixed bag of companion animal law bills coming up this session. Here are my thoughts on these ten bills. Please chime in!
HB 1541 (patron: Robert D. Orrick, Sr.)/SB 1026 (patron: Phillip P. Puckett), addressing care of agricultural animals and penalty for failure to provide care. This is the bill that provides minimum — and I mean minimum — standards of care for agricultural animals: feed to prevent emaciation, water to prevent dehydration and the most basic vet treatment. And the penalty is a mere $250 fine. The fact that the General Assembly finally proposed standards for agricultural animals is far outweighed by how much this bill waters down the animal cruelty standards under Virginia Code Section 3.2-6570, which makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2500 fine for failure to provide any animal with “necessary food, drink, shelter or emergency veterinary treatment.” I have blogged on this before, and thought further on the issue after reading many thoughtful comments. The General Assembly may try to re-work this language, but they have a long way to go to win my vote on this bill. Grade: F. UPDATE (5/21/11): Take a look at this post on the statute’s implementation — this definitely affects my overall grade, but there’s still a lot of work to do!
HB 1556 (patron: Tony Wilt), which would allow training of dogs to hunt bears to occur at night. Currently, training is limited to one-half hour before sunrise until four and a half hours after sunset. This bill has passed in the House, and is on its way to the Senate. I vote thumbs down — bear hunting with dogs is cruel to both bear and dog, and training day and night seems completely unnecessary. Grade: F
HB 1889 (patron: Tony Wilt), allowing the use of tracking dogs to find wounded or dead bear or deer during archery, muzzleloader, or firearm bear or deer hunting season, so long as those retrieving the bear or deer have permission to hunt or access to the land and do not have a weapon in their possession. However, if the county allows bear or deer hunting with dogs, hunters may carry a weapon and have unrestrained dogs while searching for wounded or dead animals. As for me, ditto on this as on HB 1556. Grade: F
HB 1930 (patron: Daniel W. Marshall, III), establishing a statewide animal abuser registry. This bill defines “animal abuser” as an adult who has been convicted of a felony violation of Virginia Code Section 3.2-6570 (cruelty to animals) or 3.2-6571 (animal fighting) or of a substantially similar law of another state or of the United States and requires any animal abuser physically within the boundaries of the Commonwealth for more than ten consecutive days to register in person with the sheriff of the county or city in which the animal abuser resides or is located. The bill also requires the offender to reregister annually. Failure to register or reregister is a Class 6 felony. The bill requires the sheriff to notify every residence and business within a one-half mile radius of the abuser’s residence or location within ten days of initial registration. The bill requires that registry information be maintained in a central registry by the State Police and posted on their website. This would be an excellent step in the right direction, following the first public animal abuser registry in Suffolk County, New York last year and setting a high price for failure to register. Thank you, Delegate Marshall! Grade: A+
HB 2108 (patron: Ward L. Armstrong)/SB 842 (patron: J. Chapman Petersen), which would allow circuit Courts to appoint new humane investigators. Currently, existing humane investigators may be reappointed, but the program is no longer open to new participants. The administrative entity that oversees animal control will be required to supervise humane investigators and maintain and annually update a list of persons eligible for appointment as humane investigators. Circuit courts that appoint a humane investigator must notify the administrative entity that oversees animal control in the locality where the humane investigator serves if a humane investigator’s term expires and he is not appointed to a succeeding term before or within 30 days. This is another bill that got kicked around last year, and the time to pass it is now! One thing that is being bantered about is whether to have humane investigators report straight to animal control, instead of the agency that oversees animal control, but either way, I give it a thumbs up. Grade: A
HB 2134 (patron: William K. Barlow), providing that law enforcement K9s would not need to be quarantined unless the K9 was showing active signs of rabies or was suspected of having rabies. The law enforcement agency would be obliged to notify the local health director of any abnormal behavior with the K9 and provide access to the K9 for examination at any reasonable time. I don’t feel as strongly about this bill as the others, but I support it. I’d love to hear other thoughts on this one. Grade: B
HB 2195 (patron: Patrick Hope and Robin Abbott), requiring veterinarians to keep records of devocalization procedures, and providing that any person, including a licensed veterinarian, who performs a surgical devocalization on a cat or dog when the procedure is not necessary to treat or relieve an illness, disease, or injury or to correct a congenital abnormality that is causing or may cause the animal physical pain or harm, is guilty of a Class 6 felony. Wow! Big thumbs up for this one. I love the substance, and the penalty, which would put Virginia in line with some of the toughest states on the devocalization issue. Grade: A+
HB 2312 (patron: Richard P. Bell and Robin Abbott), which would redefine “home based rescue” to remove the requirement that the rescue operate primarily for the purpose of finding permanent adoptive homes for companion animals. Also, prior to transferring animals, animal shelters and other releasing agencies would be required to provide certifying documents that state that the entity is in compliance with existing law and assured that its home-based rescues and fosters provide adequate care. As animal hoarding cases explode in number and severity, this is no time to take away a requirement that a home based rescue operate to provide permanent adoptive homes. I’ve got to vote thumbs down on this one. I don’t mind seeing one more background check to be sure abusers are not serving as rescues or fosters, but the rescues need access to the criminal background records. Wouldn’t that animal abuser registry be nice? Grade: F
HB 2482 (patron: R. Lee Ware, Jr.), which would provide new procedures for the impoundment, seizure, return or forfeiture of animals when the owner or custodian is suspected of animal welfare violations. Animals in the custody or possession of dealers or pet shops that fail to adequately care for such animals shall be subject to impoundment pursuant to any directive or under any supervision as may be provided by the investigating official, animal control officer, or State Veterinarian’s representative. Such animals are subject to seizure if (i) under a direct and immediate threat or (ii) the owner or custodian is unable to or does not provide adequate impoundment. If convicted, the impounded or seized animals may be forfeited or returned to the owner or custodian at the discretion of the court. This bill would also repeal the prohibition on persons that have been convicted of animal cruelty from selling or trading companion animals. The welfare requirement that emergency veterinary treatment is provided for animals under certain conditions would no longer include treatment for disease progression. This bill would be a step backwards by allowing abusers to get their animals back, and I give it a thumbs down. Grade: F
I started this blog with the hope that people could come together to share ideas about various legal issues impacting animals, and that we could all learn from each other’s input. I am thrilled to see this start to happen. The one post has generated the most comments, and got me thinking the most in response, is about Virginia’s proposed standards for agricultural animals.
The proposed standards are basic, to say the least. Water to prevent dehydration. Food to prevent starvation. And very basic veterinary care. With a maximum penalty of $250.
My initial feelings were, “Well, at least it’s a start.” After all, the General Assembly has been tweaking the comparable statute for companion animals, recently making certain subsequent offenses jailable.
Many of the comments demonstrate that people are, understandably, vehemently opposed to these proposed standards. If you want your opposition to be heard, you should act now. The House’s version of this bill, HB 1541, is slated for a Subcommittee Meeting on Monday, January 24. The Senate’s version, SB 1026, has been referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources.
So what specific suggestions can you make to your legislators? Here are some options:
Oppose the bill, and urge the General Assembly to take another year to think about the standards. This is not such a bad idea, and in the meantime, animal control officers still have tools like the animal cruelty statue at their disposal.
Oppose the bill, and urge the General Assembly to adopt the same standards for agricultural animals as exists for companion animals, at least as to adequate water, food and veterinary care. This is an excellent idea in theory, but I fear will never make it past the farming industry lobby.
Oppose the bill, urge the General Assembly to take another year to think about standards for agricultural animals, but in the meantime, change the law to categorize horses with companion animals instead of agricultural animals. This would extend the standards for companion animals at least to horses, and would go a long way, considering the number of recent abuse cases involving horses.
Support the bill, and hope for the best that the General Assembly will use the standards as a springing board for tougher laws in the future. This is sounding less and less like an option to me.
On a positive note, it is not all doom and gloom this legislative session. In fact, the General Assembly has proposed some great legislation. HB 1716 would allow judges to prohibit harm to companion animals in protective orders. HB 1930 would establish a statewide animal abuser registry, much like the first public registry started in Suffolk County, New York last year. HB 2195 would require veterinarians to keep records of devocalization procedures, and would make it a felony to perform devocalization procedures on cats or dogs unless performed to treat illness, disease, injury, or a congenital abnormality causing the animal pain or injury. And SB 842 would allow judges to appoint new humane investigators.
Regina Collins wanted a place where she could take Chance, her bouncy 12-week old “doodle” puppy for boarding and training. So she dropped Chance off with Garrett Ridley at Ridley K9 Academy in Placerville, California.
Ridley’s website claims that he has been mentored by two different trainers with different philosophies, and says that he “has had extensive experience training with positive/reward based dog training methods and old school compulsion dog training methods. He quickly recognized the benefit of both methods and the fact that one without the other usually ended with an unbalanced dog.”
According to reports, when Collins went to pick up Chance, Chance wouldn’t come to her. When Collins asked Ridley what he had done to her dog, Ridley reportedly told her not to touch Chance because he was “in trouble.”
Alarmed, Collins took Chance to the vet. Her vet found Chance covered in urine, dehydrated and with eyes that were hemorrhaging. A video of Chance can be found on Station KCRA’s website. In the video, Chance’s eyes look eerily like injuries from “shaken baby” cases I have seen in my public defender days. Chance’s vet said that the injuries are consistent with having been restrained by the neck with high pressure.
Collins filed an official complaint, and El Dorado County Animal Services is currently investigating Ridley for crimes against animals. The investigation has also lead to a finding that Ridley did not have a proper license for a commercial animal establishment.
The debate over positive reinforcement versus force-based training has been raging for quite a while. To me – a mere dog lover with no training background other than trying to keep up with Sophie, my skittish Shepherd mix – the answer is quite easy. Positive reinforcement builds the bond between you and your dog. Force and compulsion rips the bond apart – if a true bond had even formed in the first place.
But I am lucky. Before I ever knew about the debate, my local shelter steered me to a wonderful trainer who uses positive reinforcement methods. Had I not had that guidance, I can’t say I would have found the right trainer and training methods. Nor could I possibly say that Sophie is “unbalanced” because I failed to use force based methods to “counteract” her positive reinforcement training.
Within the animal behavior and dog training profession, there is a ton of information and science to support the use of positive reinforcement. But that information does not always trickle down to the average person, who has to wade through flashy TV programs, books and advertisements that may promise “tried and true methods” and quick results. The risk is particularly great in Collins’ and Chance’s situation, with a board and train program.
Outside of the profession, there is currently very little regulation over dog trainers. But this is going to change. In fact, it has already started. Just last year, Iowa began requiring kennel licenses for dog trainers and groomers. Don’t get me wrong – regulation isn’t always a bad thing. But this economic climate could cause states and localities to regulate for the wrong reasons – most notably, sheer need of revenue. And officials may not bring in the most knowledgeable professionals to provide guidance.
Here’s a case in point. When Wisconsin finally passed a puppy mill bill, it stated that breeders would need to adhere to standards that were “to be determined.” In her blog post Could Breeders and Rescues Work Together?, Dr. Patricia McConnell expressed concern that trainers and behaviorists were not brought into the committee to decide those standards. It is amazing to me that Dr. McConnell, one of the few certified applied animal behaviorists and a top-notch expert in animal behavior and dog training, is sitting right there in Wisconsin, and no one asked her opinion on such crucial legislation.
If you want to find the right kind of trainer, what are you to do? The doctrine of caveat emptor means it is your obligation to educate yourself and research the trainers you are considering.
Comb the trainers’ website and promotional materials to see how they explain their training methods and philosophy. Talk to them personally to get that explanation directly from the horse’s mouth. Read up on the types of accreditation and certifications trainers can have, and check the trainer’s certifications and education. Also look at which associations and organizations the trainer belongs to. Ask for recommendations from previous clients, and follow up with the clients to see what they have to say. Find out what kind of equipment the trainer recommends, and if the owner resorts to things like shock collars, choke or prong collars and invisible fences. And check up on their business credentials. Are they insured? Do they have a business license? This last simple question alone could have steered Collins away from Ridley. [If you have a pet related business or you are a client considering one, here’s a quick checklist for you to start with.]
There is a lingering question of whether the dog training industry needs standardization and regulation. If this is to happen, I would like to see humane standards built in, and have those standards come from within the animal behavior and dog training profession itself. And I hope to see those standards reaching the public in a way that helps to guide the average person to the right kind of trainer and methods.
Jon Cooper, a legislator from Suffolk County, New York, introduced ground-breaking legislation establishing the country’s first public Animal Abuser Registry. Just last week, the Suffolk County Legislature passed the law unanimously. The law goes to the County Executive for a thumbs up or down within thirty days.
The law requires anyone convicted of animal abuse crimes to register for a mandatory five-year period following incarceration or judgment. Those convicted of such crimes must provide their names, aliases, current addresses, and photographs. Failure to register carries a penalty of a fine of $1000 and/or up to one year in jail.
The plan is to set up and maintain the registry without cost to taxpayers. The Suffolk County SPCA has agreed to maintain the registry, and those who must register will pay a $50 annual fee.
Not satisfied with just a registry, Jon Cooper has introduced a follow-up bill that will require pet store owners, breeders and shelters to check the registry before allowing someone to adopt a pet, and will prohibit selling or adopting out a pet to someone on the registry.
So will Virginia follow suit? I can certainly see benefits to registries like Suffolk County. As one example, Virginia just toughened its penalties for failure to provide adequate care to a companion animal. [For more on what Virginia requires for care of a companion animal, see my earlier post, So What Are My Responsibilities As A Pet Owner?] The recent version of Virginia Code Section 3.2-6503 ups the fines for second or subsequent convictions of failing to provide a companion animal with its basic needs, and even creates a jailable misdemeanor for a second or subsequent conviction of failing to provide adequate food, water, shelter or veterinary care. Background checks don’t always have accurate information regarding charges and convictions, particularly for misdemeanors. A registry like Suffolk County’s would give animal control officers an added tool to check the backgrounds of suspects charged with not providing adequate care to companion animals.
Here’s a second example. Virginia Code Section 3.2-6549 lays out reporting requirements for “releasing agencies” other than pounds and shelters (which includes humane societies, animal welfare organizations, SPCAs and rescues). One of the requirements involves certifying that directors, operators, staff and animal caregivers have not been convicted of animal cruelty, neglect or abandonment. Foster care providers have the same requirement. Releasing agencies must update this information if a change occurs. A registry would go a long way to help Virginia releasing agencies and authorities to check the accuracy of these certifications.
Stay posted for Part 2 of this series, which will take a look at the status of The People v. Chung, a California case that held that officers can enter a house without a warrant if they suspect an animal is in danger.