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Monday, October 05, 2009

Court Upholds Law Protecting People and Pets

While the U.S. Supreme Court tomorrow will consider a landmark case on the commercial sale of videos showing illegal acts of animal torture, another decision just issued by a federal court in Louisville could also have a meaningful impact on animal protection policies nationwide. The court upheld as constitutional nearly every component of Louisville’s comprehensive animal care and control ordinance, which protects pets and their owners in the metro area.

Pitbull 
A federal court upheld Louisville's comprehensive animal
care and control ordinance
.

The controversy began in November 2005, with two fatal attacks by pit bulls in Louisville, and city lawmakers reacted by proposing a pit bull ban. The city’s animal control ordinance was set to expire anyway, resulting from the merger of the Louisville and Jefferson County governments, so lawmakers decided to take the opportunity to address more wide-ranging problems, such as Louisville’s overpopulation of stray dogs and cats.

HSUS and other groups that oppose breed-specific legislation argued that a ban on pit bulls would be ineffective at addressing dangerous dog problems, and that other factors, such as the level of training and socialization provided by the dog’s owner, have a greater impact on aggressive behavior. To their great credit, lawmakers opted to pursue a measure that was not breed-specific but instead placed primary responsibility for a dog’s behavior on owners, and encouraged owners to consider spaying and neutering their dogs in order to decrease the likelihood of biting and aggression. 

The new law passed in 2007 not only took a proactive approach to dangerous dogs, but also strengthened other areas of the law—protecting dogs from continuous tethering, imposing certain requirements on dog owners and kennels to provide basic necessities to their dogs, disclosing information to consumers who purchase animals, and incentivizing the spaying and neutering of pets through differential licensing fees. Given that Louisville’s shelter euthanasia rate was three times the national average, something had to be done to address particularly acute and escalating animal control problems.

In their zeal to prevent any restrictions on animal use, however, the Louisville Kennel Club, local hunting organizations, and other plaintiffs filed a broad and haphazard lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of nearly two-dozen provisions of the law, including both newly enacted provisions and provisions that have existed in the Louisville animal control ordinance for years. The Kennel Club sought to invalidate the entire ordinance, which would have deprived the Louisville metro government of its ability to provide critical public safety protections for its citizens, divest the county’s animal control department of virtually every one of its functions, decriminalize acts of cruelty to animals, and put the county back on track toward becoming one of the most prolific dog and cat killing jurisdictions in the nation.

On Friday, the federal district court resoundingly rejected the Kennel Club’s challenge to the law. The court did not strike any of the language of the ordinance, and enjoined implementation of only one aspect of the law in a very narrow class of cases—the forfeiture of animals where a court has determined that there is probable cause that a violation of the law has occurred, but the owner is not able to pay a bond to cover the costs of care for the animal pending trial, and the owner is eventually acquitted of the offense. The court did not strike the bond requirement, nor the provision requiring forfeiture of animals to the metro government in certain cases after an owner is found to be in violation of the animal control ordinance.

The Kennel Club’s effort to invalidate key provisions of the ordinance was rejected over and over again in the court’s opinion. Important sections of the animal control law challenged by the Kennel Club and upheld by the court include the:

  • prohibition of cruelty to animals;
  • provisions preventing animal nuisances;
  • restrictions on tethering animals in a cruel or neglectful manner;
  • provisions concerning impoundment and license revocation;
  • restrictions on sales of dangerous and potentially dangerous dogs;
  • provisions granting animal control the authority to seize animals of owners violating the ordinance;
  • requirements for veterinarians to report public health information, such as vaccination records and animal bites, to the government; and
  • definitions of “dangerous dog,” “potentially dangerous dog,” “proper enclosures” for unaltered dogs, “nuisance,” “attack,” “restraint,” and “cruelty.”

Notably, the court also resoundingly rejected the Kennel Club’s challenges to the enforcement authority of the director of Louisville Metro Animal Services, discarding the claims of “arbitrary” and “selective” enforcement. Responding to the allegation that the director intends to conduct warrantless searches in enforcing the ordinance, the court stated that the Kennel Club and other plaintiffs “are doing battle with a bogeyman of their own conjuring.”

Other municipalities have adopted more sweeping ordinances, such as pit bull bans or mandatory spay and neuter. Louisville policymakers, after a long and unusually deliberative legislative process, adopted a comprehensive but measured approach, striking a balance between the governmental interests in public health and safety and the interests of animal owners. And the court, in upholding the core provisions of the measure, sent the message that the protection of animal welfare is an important governmental responsibility.

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