Companion Animal Law Blog

Bringing together those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around companion animals

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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!

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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.


Wonderful Week for the Animals, Part Three: Busted! Again! Dog Fighting Operation Shut Down in Gary, Indiana

What a great week last week was for the animals! The first post in this series covered Tuesday’s landmark indictment, with felony animal cruelty charges against four lab employees for heinous acts against lab animals. The second post described Thursday’s proposed comprehensive federal legislation to better the conditions of egg-laying hens and mandate honest egg labeling, thanks to tenacious efforts of agricultural animal welfare advocates.

Part Three involves yet another dog fighting bust last Thursday, July 7, 2011 – this time in Gary, Indiana.  In April of this year, law enforcement broke up a dog fighting ring in Halifax County, Virginia.

Law enforcement received an anonymous tip about an alleged dog fighting ring, and obtained a search warrant. A local news report said that the tip came from a person who had been to dog fights there, but started to feel guilty after working with pit bulls with Animal Control, and decided to turn the culprits in.

The search revealed a fighting area and dog fighting paraphernalia, including “breaking sticks” to pry the dogs’ jaws open and a treadmill to condition the dogs. Officers also found twenty kenneled dogs, including young puppies. The dogs had injuries consistent with dog fighting. Reports indicated that one dog was missing a large part of his lip, and another dog was missing an entire ear.

The raid let to arrests for four men – Brandon Peterson, Sammy Jones, Clifton Harris and Willie Hargrove. The four have been charged with felony dog fighting. In Indiana, that crime carries up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Representatives from the Humane Society of the United States were on hand to take the dogs to a safe and undisclosed place pending trial. The dogs will be evaluated, with the hopes of rehabilitating them.

As noted by HSUS and the Gary, Indiana Community website, the effort was made possible by collaboration with local law enforcement, HSUS, and several other local organizations, including Casa Del Toro Pit Bull Rescue, the Monroe County Humane Association, Honey Creek Animal Hospital, the Indiana Gaming Commission’s Gaming Control Division and Heartland Animal Rescue.

Law enforcement took the time to swab the breaking sticks and other evidence for blood, in order to link the paraphernalia to the dogs. But the blood can also be submitted to the country’s first dog fighting DNA database, Canine CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). The University of California, Davis, Veterinary Genetics Laboratory maintains the Canine CODIS, and reports that it was established by the ASPCA, the Humane Society of Missouri and the Louisiana SPCA.

This case is yet another example of great collaboration on a local and national level to achieve great results – not the least of which is the safety and comfort of the 20 dogs, who no longer need to fight, or live in fear of losing a fight or acting as bait.

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Busted! Police Break Up Halifax County Dog Fighting Ring

A citizen tip regarding drugs launched a complex investigation in and around Halifax County, Virginia.  During the investigation, Jonathan Williams and Jermaine Thaxton sold a “fighting dog” to an undercover officer for $400.  Before putting the dog in the undercover officer’s trunk, Williams and Thaxton showed off the dog by bringing another dog around and provoking a fight.

The investigation ended yesterday, with state and federal law enforcement officials successfully busting a dog fighting ring in Halifax County, Virginia.  Four individuals — Williams and Thaxton, along with two others — have been charged in connection with the investigation.  The four men face a variety of state and federal dog fighting, drug and gun charges.

With the help of ASPCA, the officers rescued a total of forty-one pit bulls and beagles from the property.  The dogs are currently receiving veterinary care and will be temperament tested, with the aim of transferring the dogs to rescues for adoption.  The ASPCA gathered DNA evidence for all of the dogs to include in the Canine CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) — the first national dog fighting DNA database.

For further information on this story, take a look at Roanoke’s WSLS 10 article and video, and this Gazette-Virginian story.  You can also follow the story on ASPCA’s blog.  Hats off to the officers and the ASPCA on this!