A pit bull looks out from a cage in the Liberty Humane Society shelter July 24, 2007 in Jersey City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A bill seeking to revise animal cruelty laws moved out of the Assembly Agriculture Committee Monday after 90 minutes of passionate testimony from animal advocacy groups largely in opposition.
The measure (A6099) would amend the law prohibiting the cruel tethering and confinement of dogs by adding a ban on tethering dogs in an area exposed to waste, debris, or flooding. People would also be barred from tethering dogs on vacant properties under the bill.
The measure would establish new procedures for what happens to pets seized from owners and who pays for their care. Police would be able to go on private property to seize pets they believe are in immediate danger, and owners found to be neglecting their pets would have to pay for their care while they’re held in a shelter or other animal facility.
While most animal advocates agreed on expanding the language barring cruel tethering and confinement of dogs, dozens of animal lovers were opposed to the bill’s language about the taking of pets.
Kathy McGuire, a certified animal control officer and president of NJ Aid for Animals in Camden, said a problem with the bill is people often don’t know what to look for when determining whether someone is being cruel to animals.
She told the story of Mush, a cat roaming outside who was picked up by an animal control officer who assumed he was injured after being hit by a car. The cat had no collar or microchip, and was euthanized at the Red Bank Veterinary Hospital.
But Mush was born with spina bifida, which gave him a curved spine and made it difficult to walk. His owners told Patch Mush was in perfect health.
McGuire also recalled the time 50 huskies were rescued in Winslow Township and were being brought to the Camden shelter. McGuire said the dogs’ owner may have been “in over her head” but was not abusing them.
“There was no cruelty involved,” she said.
Other advocates stressed that pets are property — as well as family — and the Constitution protects the seizure of private property without due process.
Under the bill, the officer who seizes an animal would be required to send a letter to its owner within seven days detailing the alleged violation and identifying where the pet is being kept. The shelter would then have 30 days to file a complaint with evidence showing the pet needed to be protected from harm or was in immediate need of medical attention.
If the court finds the animal was properly taken into custody, the owner would be responsible for all costs related to the animal’s protection and medical attention. In extreme circumstances, veterinarians could decide to euthanize the animal, the cost of which would also fall to the owners, under the bill.
Mike Fry, an animal welfare advocate, also believes the law could result in pets being taken away from families and killed before court proceeding are over. Under the bill, a person found not guilty would be able to reclaim the money, but pets would likely already be under the ownership of the shelter — Fry argues these pets could be adopted by other families or killed.
Brian Hackett of the Animal Legal Defense Fund testified in support of the bill, saying the law is needed in New Jersey to help animal care agencies that are caring for pets taken from abusive owners by charging bad owners and holding them accountable. It would also allow rescue organizations to help those animals find foster homes, he said.
“This isn’t a situation of someone doesn’t have a proper dog house and the animal is seized, or my grandma has a few cats and she can’t take care of them properly. These are largely utilized in large scale cruelty cases, such as dog fighting cases and mass hoarding cases, where there’s extensive cost of care for these animals and can bankrupt a municipal shelter,” he said.
And although the bill was advanced out of committee, legislators agreed there needs to be “continued dialogue” on how to best protect pets and innocent owners.
“We all care about our pets. There’s a lot of feelings, a lot of different definitions of what is neglect. In the end, this is about abusing animals, and what do we do when this happens,” Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling said, adding that it would be a “great thing” for the sponsors to amend the bill.
The companion bill was voted out of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee Dec. 9, and has not been voted on by the full Senate. The current legislative session ends Jan. 11 at noon, and bills would need to be reintroduced to be considered in the next session.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.