Companion Animal Law Blog

Bringing together those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around companion animals


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Hi Five! The USDA Proposes Rule to Close Internet Loophole

Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) proposed a rule that redefines the definition of “retail pet store” under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) in order to shut a loophole that has allowed retailers to sell animals “sight unseen” via the internet, by mail or over the phone.

Initially passed in 1966, the AWA carved out retail pet stores, which would not be subject to USDA licensing and inspection requirements.  The rationale for this carve-out was because the consumer had the opportunity to check an animal’s health and condition in person in the store before buying the animal.  Technology has changed all of that, allowing retailers who use the internet, mail and phone sales to escape any kind of inspection by the consumer or the government.

Under the proposed rule, a person who breeds more than four female dogs, cats and/or small exotic or wild mammals must open their doors either to the public or to APHIS inspectors, who will also require a license.

This rule still doesn’t impact backyard breeders and traditional retail pet stores that sell directly to the public.  State regulation governs those stores and breeders, but states have had mixed results with puppy mill legislation.  When states have been able to pass puppy mill statutes, they are often fairly weak.  For example, Virginia’s puppy mill statute only covers breeders who have at least 50 breeding dogs.

The public will have 60 days from the time the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register to submit comments.  In the meantime, here is a link to the proposed rule.


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Public Meeting on the Solesky Decision this Sunday

The Maryland Animal Law Center will be hosting a public meeting on the fallout of the Solesky decision and what impact it has on pet care industry companies, rescues and owners.  The meeting is this Sunday, May 6 from 2:00 to 4:00 at Coventry School for Dogs in Columbia, Maryland.  This is a great opportunity to get up to speed on what impact the Solesky decision may have.


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Sometimes Bright Line Rules Just Aren’t the Answer: The Problem with Tracey v. Solesky

Bright line rules have their place. Society often benefits from clear, objective and unambiguous rules, when those rules produce even-handed and predictable results and  have very little risk of creating harsh or unjust results. Take speed limits, voting ages, and Miranda warnings as examples.

But sometimes life is not black and white. Bright line rules are inappropriate and dangerous tools any time the issues turn on a variety circumstances and there is a risk of sweeping up innocent activity or individuals. Then a balancing test, or case-by-case analysis, is much more appropriate.

Today, the Court of Appeals of Maryland opted for a bright line rule in exactly the kind of case where a bright line rule is inappropriate. In Tracey v. Solesky, the Court ruled:

Upon a plaintiff’s sufficient proof that a dog involved in an attack is a pit bull or a pit bull cross, and that the owner, or other person(s) who has the right to control the pit bull’s presence on the subject premises (including a landlord who has a right to prohibit such dogs on leased premises) knows, or has reason to know, that the dog is a pit bull or cross-bred pit bull, that person is liable for the damages caused to a plaintiff who is attacked by the dog on or from the owner’s or lessor’s premises. In that case a plaintiff has established a prima facie case of negligence. When an attack involves pit bulls, it is no longer necessary to prove that the particular pit bull or pit bulls are dangerous.

Such a bright line rule – pit bulls are per se dangerous – is misguided. Don’t get me wrong. I in no way condone what happened in this case. The dog was left in a small pen, escaped, and attacked and seriously injured a child. The owner put the dog back in the same pen, and the dog escaped yet again, and mauled another child, causing life threatening injuries.

The dog’s breed is not the main issue in this case. The much larger issue is the fact that the owner was completely irresponsible.

There was no reason for the Court to make new law in this case. The defendant could have tried to invoke the “one free bite” rule. But, at best, the “one free bite” rule would only help him escape civil liability for money damages as to the first child. He was certainly on notice of the dog’s propensity when the second child was attacked. Additionally, the “one free bite” rule would not impede a dangerous dog proceeding, and a well-crafted dangerous dog statute can provide restitution to victims without the hassle of a civil law suit.

The most frustrating part of this ruling is that there are many pit bull and pit bull mix owners who are highly responsible and who will get swept up in this bright line rule. Likewise, the ruling will not affect the highly irresponsible owners of dogs who are not pit bulls or pit bull mixes. Dare I even mention the issue of how a court is to determine whether a dog is a pit bull or pit bull mix.

Courts and legislators should focus on owner responsibility, not breed. Fortunately, Virginia’s dangerous dog statute makes it clear that breed alone is not a reason to declare a dog to be dangerous. I hope Virginia keeps its focus on owner responsibility and does not choose to follow the path of neighboring Maryland in this regard.


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Update on Virginia’s 2012 Legislative Session

As well as this legislative session started, not much positive happened for animals this year.  Here’s a rundown of what the General Assembly did this year:

HB 95 (Bear Hound Training):  Even though bear hound training was already allowed during most times of the day, this bill extended the hours of training bear hounds to include 4:00 AM to 10:00 PM.  The Senate  stopped this bill in its tracks last year, but it sailed through the House and the Senate this year and was signed into law by the Governor.

HB 158 (Prohibiting Devocalization):  This is the second time Virginia missed an opportunity to put a stop to the inhumane practice of devocalization. This bill was pushed off until 2013 when it was continued by voice vote in the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.

HB 363 (Companion Animals in Protective Orders):  This bill would have clarified that judges have the ability to include companion animals in protective orders, but it was left in the House Appropriations Committee.

HB 537/SB 305 (Dangerous Dog Registry):  This bill made its way up to the Governor and was signed into law.  It shifts more responsibility to local animal control officers to regulate dangerous dogs, and changed the time to comply with  registration from 10 days to 45 days.

HB 650 (Notice of Euthanasia for Companion Animals):  This bill would require shelters or pounds to give notice to rescues in the position to help out before euthanizing healthy, adoptable companion animals.  This is yet another example of a bill that got stuck in the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.

HB 695/SB 202 (Prohibiting Fox and Coyote Penning):  This bill would have outlawed the cruel blood sport of fox and coyote penning.  I’m very disappointed to say that this bill, like many others, did not make it out of the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.

HB 888 (Allowing Local Anti-Tethering Ordinances):  This bill would have clarified that localities can pass their own anti-tethering ordinances.  No surprises here — yet another bill stuck in the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.

HB 1242/SB 477 (Prohibiting Exotic Animals):  This bill was in response to the tragedy last year in Zanesville, Ohio involving the deaths of numerous exotic animals.  The House continued this bill in the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee by voice vote to the 2013 session.  The Senate kicked it to the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.

SB 359 (TNR):  This bill would declare TNR to be a legal and acceptable practice to control feral cat populations.  It passed the Senate, but got stuck in the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.

SB 610 (Agricultural Animals):  This bill got lots of traction, but fortunately did not become law.  It is still kicking around the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.  This bill seeks to exclude hunting, working and show dogs from the definition of companion animals, and would throw a great deal more on the shoulders of the State Vet instead of localities and animal control officers.

There’s much work ahead of us to prepare for the 2013 legislative session!  We could especially use help from those of you with delegates in the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.  If you’re not sure who your delegate is, or whether they are members of that committee, take a look now with the Virginia General Assembly “Who’s My Legislator” site.


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Local Events and Animal Abuse Awareness Month in April

Animal Abuse Awareness Month is coming up in April.  What better way to kick this month off than by participating two local events this weekend!

The Maryland State Bar Animal Law Section will be hosting its annual Animal Law Symposium this Friday, March 30 in Baltimore.  Topics will include incorporating animal law into private practice, prosecuting and defending animal cruelty cases, and how to set up a nonprofit organization.  Check out the Maryland State Bar’s website for registration information and the full agenda.  And good news for lawyers — this year, the Symposium will qualify for up to 7 hours of CLE credit!  Veterinarians can also earn continuing education credit.

The Virginia Federation of Humane Societies will also be hosting its annual conference in Williamsburg, Virginia on March 29-31, 2012.  Workshop and presentations include using social media to increase the effectiveness of foster programs, putting together an animal cruelty investigation and case, feral cat rescue and management, and enrichment activities for high energy dogs.  Animal control officers can get credit for attending these great workshops.

These events and Animal Abuse Awareness Month could not be timed better, in light of the fact that the Traverse and Tremayne Johnson retrial has just gotten under way.  This case involved dousing and burning a pit bull in the streets of Baltimore.  Phoenix, as the dog was later named by responders, had to be euthanized due to her injuries, and has become a beacon to increase animal cruelty and abuse awareness.  The first trial resulted in a mistrial.  Jury selection is scheduled to begin today for the retrial.


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Humane Lobby Day and an Overview of Virginia’s 2012 Legislative Session

Please join the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies and the Humane Society of the United States this Thursday in Richmond for Humane Lobby Day.  There will be plenty to discuss with your representatives.  Here is my take on each of the companion animal related bills in this session:

STRONGLY SUPPORT:

HB 158 (Prohibiting Devocalization):  A great bill designed to end an inhumane practice. Virginia missed the opportunity to pass this last year, but will hopefully come through this session.

HB 363 (Companion Animals in Protective Orders):  This bill clarifies that judges have the ability to include companion animals in protective orders.

HB 650 (Notice of Euthanasia for Companion Animals):  This bill provides that shelters or pounds give notice to rescues in the position to help out before euthanizing healthy, adoptable companion animals.

HB 695/SB 202 (Prohibiting Fox and Coyote Penning):  Like dog fighting, which is now outlawed in all fifty states, fox penning is an inhumane “sport” that amounts to cruelty.

HB 888 (Allowing Local Anti-Tethering Ordinances):  This merely clarifies that localities have the ability to pass their own anti-tethering ordinances.

HB 1242/SB 477 (Prohibiting Exotic Animals):  A necessary response to the tragedy last year in Ohio.

SB 359 (TNR):  This bill clarifies that TNR is a legal and acceptable practice to control feral cat populations that should not be hindered by current abandonment laws.

HJ 143 (Spay Day):  Who could resist this?!

SUPPORT IN PART AND OPPOSE IN PART:

HB 537/SB 305 (Dangerous Dog Registry):  This bill makes good changes to shift more responsibility to local animal control officers, but the 45-day window to comply with the registration certification procedures is too long.  When there has been an issue such as obtaining insurance that has taken longer than the current 10-day window, animal control officers are more than willing to work with registrants.  A 15-day window would probably be sufficient.

STRONGLY OPPOSE:

HB 95 (Bear Hound Training):  Training is already allowed during most times of the day, and there is no reason to extend training into the late hours of the night and early hours of the morning.

SB 610 (Agricultural Animals):  This bill is a huge setback, as it tries to peel off hunting, working and show dogs from the definition of companion animals and puts all authority in the hands of the State Vet instead of localities and animal control officers.

Please reach out to your state representatives to ask for support regarding these vital companion animal issues.  If you are unsure of who your representatives are, or how to contact them, visit the Virginia General Assembly website.


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Virginia Legislative Round Up for 2012 Session

It’s that time of year again! Several bills have already made it on this year’s slate, and a couple more may be added before the session is over. This year’s legislative session looks very promising for companion animals – with one glaring exception.

HB 95 (Bear Hound Training): We start with the one glaring exception. As things stand, hunters can train dogs to hunt bear from a half hour before sunrise until four and a half hours after sunset. This bill would allow this training to occur at night. Last year, the House passed this bill, but the Senate stopped the bill in its tracks.

HB 158 (Devocalization of Companion Animals): This bill makes devocalization a Class One Misdemeanor (punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a fine) unless the operation is necessary to relieve illness, disease, injury or pain. This is another carry over from last year, when this bill ended up getting stuck in the House Committee for Courts of Justice.

HB 363 (Companion Animals in Protective Orders): Once again, this bill ties into a bill from 2011. Last year’s bill would have granted courts explicit authority to include companion animals in domestic violence protective orders. It was resolved by adding language prohibiting acts of abuse or offenses that result in injury to person or “property.” Needless to say, confusion has arisen with this language, and this bill attempts to clarify that a protective order petitioner can be awarded control, custody and care of a companion animal.

For an overview of last year’s legislative session, take a look at this post.  And on to new topics for this year’s session:

HB 537/SB 305 (Dangerous Dog Registry): This bill proposes to place primary responsibility for registering dangerous dogs with animal control officers instead of the State Veterinarian’s office. It would also lengthen the amount of time to obtain the certificate of registration from ten days to 45 days. The certification fee would increase from $50 to $150, but the registration fee that went to the State Vet would be eliminated.

HB 650 (Notice of Euthanasia for Companion Animals): This bill requires city and county pounds to maintain a registry of organizations willing to accept healthy and non-vicious companion animals scheduled to be euthanized, and requires the pounds to give 24 hours’ notice to the organizations prior to euthanizing. This bill also requires pounds to make available annual statistics of impounded animals.

HB 695 (Prohibiting Fox and Coyote Penning): The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has taken this crucial issue head on this year. This bill would make fox and coyote penning a Class One Misdemeanor. If you don’t know about this cruel “sport,” think dog fighting, but using foxes and coyote as bait animals. Read more about it on HSUS’s website.  And, Virginians, you can send a message directly to your legislators on this HSUS site.

HB 888 (Anti-Tethering Ordinances): Virginia is a strong proponent of “Dillon’s Rule,” which dictates that counties, cities and other localities have only those powers that the state has explicitly granted them. This is reflected in Virginia Code Section 3.2-6543, which lays out for localities the types of ordinances they may enact that impact companion animals. Leash laws are explicitly included, but that section does not directly address tethering. Some Virginia localities, such as Alexandria, haven’t let that stop them. But this bill would wisely make it clear that localities can regulate tethering.

Watch for three more bills that are in the works for this year’s legislative session: (1) establishing February 28 as Spay Day; (2) addressing TNR (trap, neuter and return of feral cats); and (3) prohibiting ownership of exotic animals. I’ll post more information on these as they become available.

If you live in Virginia, please reach out to your local legislators on these bills.  And consider joining HSUS and the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies for Humane Lobby Day in Richmond on January 26, 2012!