Companion Animal Law Blog

Bringing together those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around companion animals


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Alexandria Animals Score Big Today!

This morning, the City Council in Alexandria, Virginia faced a final vote on two crucial companion animal laws.

The first vote was politically very easy and straightforward — after all, who could possibly disagree that there should be a specific cruelty law to address leaving an animal in a car on a hot day?  The new City Code Section 5-7-58 will punish leaving an animal in a car that is not air-conditioned if the outside temperature is 70 degrees or hotter with a fine, and makes it a jailable offense to leave an animal in a car if the animal suffers heat stress.  The vote took no time, passing 6-0.  There was no debate against the law, and plenty of well-deserved kudos to the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria and its hard-working animal control officers for taking the initiative on this issue.

The political temperature on the next vote was unknown — whether City Council would pass a law that would say definitively that electronic collars don’t cut it under Alexandria’s leash laws.  (Sound familiar?  Who’s said that before…?)  Plenty of speakers came out in support of proposed amendment to the leash law, and no one spoke against it.

After the testimony, Vice Mayor Kerry Donley started the discussion with the comment that this law — like the previous one — was a “no brainer.”  Donley’s first question to the staff was about the penalty for violating the leash ordinance, which is currently a $100 civil fine.  He then asked if that was the most the City could do under state law, and invited the staff to make a recommendation at a later date to stiffen the penalty.  And a discussion of possible harsher penalties for recidivists followed.  Nicely done, Mr. Vice Mayor!

Councilmember Del Pepper praised the ordinance for giving clear guidance to animal control officers and one more welcome tool for the officers.  Councilmember Rob Kupricka commented that electronic collars pose safety issues for the public and not just the animals, and he hoped the new law would aid the officers in confronting off leash dogs.

A crucial question raised by Pepper was how to get the word out to the citizens of Alexandria that electronic collars would no longer suffice as a “leash.”  Joy Wilson, the Director of Animal Control, responded that she plans to focus on educating the public about why the law changed.  Councilmember Frank Fannon had an excellent suggestion about reaching out through Alexandria’s robust pet care industry to spread the news.

After discussion, the City Council voted — once again, unanimously — in support of the change.  With that vote, the City of Alexandria has made it clear that electronic collars pose a sufficient safety threat to the dogs and the public that they will no longer count as “leashes” or “physical restraint” under the leash laws.

Major kudos to Alexandria’s Animal Control Officers and the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria!  As a resident of Alexandria since 1997, I can’t be more proud!  Thanks for all you do and congratulations on this huge victory for the animals!


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Alexandria, Virginia Steps Up Safety For Companion Animals

Tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM, the Alexandria City Council is poised to pass two ordinances aimed at companion animal safety.

The first ordinance is not a new topic for this blog –whether electronic collars qualify as “leashes” under Alexandria’s leash laws. The City Council is addressing this issue head on, and if this ordinance passes, will say unequivocally that a shock collar does not qualify as a leash. This law is a welcome step in the path of countries like Wales, which recently banned electronic collars.

Here is the gist of proposed amendment to Alexandria’s ordinance from the definitions section in Section 5-7-31 (j), with new language in bold and italics:

(j) Run or running at large. Roaming or running off the premises of its owner not under the control of its owner or a responsible person capable of physical restraining the dog and not secured by a leash, lead or other means of physical restraint, which leash, lead or other means of physical restraint is not harmful or injurious to the dog and which is held by a responsible person capable of physically restraining the dog. An electronic collar or other similar electronic device does not qualify as a leash, lead or other means of physical restraint.

Similar changes prohibiting electronic collars will carry through to Section 5-7-33.1, addressing dogs running at large, and Section 5-7-35, Alexandria’s leash law. You can see all of the proposed changes and further discussion on the proposed ordinance on the City of Alexandria’s website.

The second ordinance addresses locking animals in hot cars. The proposed law would make it a misdemeanor punishable by a fine for confining an animal in a car if the outside temperature is 70 degrees or hotter and the car is not properly air conditioned. The law would also make it a crime punishable by a fine and up to twelve months in jail for leaving an animal unattended if the animal suffers heat stress.

Here is the full language of proposed Section 5-7-58:

Sec. 5-7-58 Confinement of animals in vehicles prohibited.
(a) Any person who confines an animal in an unattended, enclosed vehicle where the outside temperature is 70 degrees Fahrenheit or greater, and the interior of the vehicle is not provided with conditioned air to maintain an internal temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit or less, shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor.
(b) Any person who confines an animal in an unattended, enclosed vehicle so as to cause the animal to suffer from heat stress as diagnosed by a licensed veterinarian, shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. The Animal Control Officer or other officer shall have the authority to remove any animal found in an enclosed vehicle that appears to be suffering from heat stress. The animal shall be provided immediate veterinary care. The animal owner or custodian shall be responsible for all expenses incurred during the removal of the animal or its subsequent treatment and impoundment.
(c) In the event that the person responsible for the violation cannot be ascertained, the registered owner of the vehicle, as required by Chapter 6 of Title 46.2 of the Code of Virginia (1950), as amended, shall constitute in evidence a prima facie presumption that such registered owner was the person who committed the violation.
Section 2. That this ordinance shall become effective upon the date and at the time of its final passage.

Again, you can check the City’s website for more information on Section 5-7-58.

As a resident of Alexandria since 1997, it will make me very proud to see both of these ordinances pass tomorrow!  Check here for more information on the Saturday, November 12, 2011 9:30 AM docket.


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My Sentiments Exactly! Medlen v. Strickland and Sentimental Value

On June 2, 2009, the Medlens’ family dog, Avery, escaped from his backyard in Tarrant County, Texas. Animal Control responded and impounded Avery as a stray. Mr. Medlen went to the pound to claim Avery, but did not have enough money that day to pay the impound fees. The pound told Mr. Medlen that he could return on June 10 to get Avery, and a “hold for owner” tag was placed on Avery’s kennel.

On June 6, a pound employee made a list of dogs to be euthanized the following day, and mistakenly included Avery’s name on that list. Avery was euthanized the next day. The Medlens discovered the mistake and tragic result when they went to reclaim Avery as planned.

The Medlens sued the employee for negligence, claiming damages to compensate them for the unique sentimental or intrinsic value that Avery had. The employee argued that the Medlens weren’t entitled to those kinds of damages, and the trial court agreed with the employee.

On appeal, the pound employee relied on an 1891 Texas case, Heiligman v. Rose, for the proposition that Texas law treats dogs differently than other “personal property,” and limits damages to market value, or some special pecuniary value based on the dog’s usefulness or services. Heiligman involved three dogs who were poisoned. The dogs were bred and “well trained,” and one of the dogs would even bark in three different ways to signal whether a man, woman or child were approaching. The plaintiff in that case testified that the dogs’ “market value” was $5, but that she wouldn’t part with them for less than $50.

Arguing to reverse the trial court, the Medlens cited cases holding that plaintiffs are entitled to the sentimental or intrinsic value of property when the property has little to no “fair market value.” The appellate courts have not had the opportunity to decide cases with companion animals since Heiligman, but have looked at cases involving family correspondence, photographs and other keepsakes, shade and ornamental trees, and wedding veils, shoes, lace collars and watches.

On Friday, the Court of Appeals for the Second District of Texas issued its opinion agreeing with the Medlens, concluding that they entitled to damages reflecting Avery’s sentimental or intrinsic value. The highlight of the Court’s opinion is this wonderful acknowledgment of the special human-dog bond:

Because of the special position pets hold in their family, we see no reason why existing law should not be interpreted to allow recovery in the loss of a pet at least to the same extent as any other personal property. Cf. Bueckner, 886 S.W.2d at 377–78 (Andell, J., concurring) (“Society has long since moved beyond the untenable Cartesian view that animals are unfeeling automatons and, hence, mere property. The law should reflect society‘s recognition that animals are sentient and emotive beings that are capable of providing companionship to the humans with whom they live.”). Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners. Today, we interpret timeworn supreme court law in light of subsequent supreme court law to acknowledge that the special value of “man‘s best friend” should be protected.

Although this does allow for damages based on intrinsic or sentimental value, the Texas courts may still be unwilling to allow for damages for mental anguish or pain and suffering for the loss of a companion animal. Virginia has made it clear that a plaintiff in a negligence action cannot claim damages for pain and suffering – although there is a window of hope that the Virginia courts would allow those damages in intentional tort cases. But Virginia has yet to come out clearly on the issue of damages based on a companion animals’ intrinsic or sentimental value.

This case is a wonderful example of how we can work within the confines of the law – which still considers our companions to be personal property – to achieve results that nonetheless recognize the special place that our companion animals have in our lives.

Many thanks to Debra Griggs of the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies for alerting me to this case!


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Lewis & Clark Animal Law Conference This Weekend!

This weekend marks Lewis & Clark Law School’s 19th Annual Animal Law Conference.  The theme this year is “Standing Up for Animals:  Can a Bad Economy Inspire Greater Goodness?”

Speakers from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the ASPCA, Lewis & Clark Law School’s Center for Animal Law Studies and professors from around the country and the world are presenting.  This conference is enormously successful and sells out each year, so I’m excited to be here to participate.

If you’re in town for the conference, please let me know!  I’d love to meet up and say hi.


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News Flash! VFHS Regional Meeting Tonight in Arlington!

Join the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies tonight for their Regional Meeting in Northern Virginia.  The meeting will be held from 7:00 to 9:00 PM at the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, at 2650 S Arlington Mill Drive, Arlington, VA 22206 in Shirlington.

We will discuss the status of animal welfare in Virginia, upcoming legislation and what you can do to help.  Guest speakers include representatives from the Humane Society of the United States and Ally Cat AlliesCheck VFHS’s website for further information.

Hope to see you there!

Also take note that VFHS is offering an early bird special to renew your membership, and the new Comprehensive Animal Law Handbooks are out and available for only $10.  And stay tuned for more information about VFHS’s Annual Conference in Williamsburg on March 29-31, 2012!


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Toronto is Next to Ban Sale of Cats and Dogs in Pet Stores

We’ve all seen storefronts with adorable puppies and kittens staring at us and waiting to be taken home.  It’s hard to resist those big round eyes looking up at you — unless you stop to think about where these animals have probably come from.

The animals sold in pet stores most likely come from puppy mills — places where profit trumps the welfare of the animals.  Taking home one of these puppies or kittens will only fuel the ongoing misery that the parents live in.  Here’s a graphic example of an investigation into the true source of the animals sold in Petland, a large retail outlet for live animals:

In an effort to stop supporting puppy bans, local jurisdictions have begun passing laws to ban the sale of live animals in pet stores.  Just yesterday, Toronto became the second city in Canada, after Richmond, British Columbia, to pass such a ban.  In the United States, at least three cities have passed pet store bans — South Lake Tahoe, West Hollywood and Lake Worth in Florida.

I am an adamant supporter of these bans.  But it is not a stand alone solution.  These bans must be coupled with public education about the rationale for the bans — that buying an animal from a store profits puppy mills.  And as I’ve harped on before, we need to tackle the overpopulation issue from all angles — supply side and demand side — with well crafted spay/neuter laws and breeding regulations, and stronger animal abuser and puppy mill laws.


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Worth the Cost? Virginia’s Proposed Abuser Registries

You run a Virginia rescue, and are diligent in complying with the statutory requirement to provide signed statements from each of your directors, operators, staff, animal caregivers and fosters verifying they have never been convicted of animal cruelty, neglect or abandonment. It then comes to light that one of your staff actually has an animal cruelty conviction that you didn’t know about. You also find out that one of your directors was convicted of neglect after she signed her statement.

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 pounds and shelters.

Short of employing a company to do expensive background checks, or going to each courthouse to comb through criminal records, how are pounds, shelters and rescues supposed to check on the accuracy of these statements? One solution would be the creation of an animal abuser registry. In fact, Delegate Daniel W. Marshall, III from Danville introduced two bills earlier this year that would establish registries – much like Virginia’s current sex offender registry – for animal abusers and domestic abusers.

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.

The animal abuser and domestic abuser bills were sent to the Committee for Courts of Justice in January. Yesterday, the Virginia State Crime Commission heard evidence that the cost of setting up both abuser registries would be $1 million, with further operating costs in the millions of dollars. The Virginia State Crime Commission is expected to vote on the proposals for these registries later this year, and the General Assembly could vote on the bills as early as the 2012 legislative session.

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.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s proposed animal abuser registry would track only Virginia residents, and only felony cruelty and animal fighting convictions. The first jurisdiction to pass legislation creating an animal abuser registry was Suffolk County, New York last year. I applaud efforts to be tough on animal abusers. But registries are being created in a piecemeal way, locality by locality or state by state.  Although free and easy to access, it would be incredibly time-consuming to check each one of these registries.  A much more practical solution is to have a nationwide registry that could track felony and misdemeanor cruelty, neglect and abuse convictions – a cause that some have already voluntarily taken up.