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Monday, October 20, 2014

Who Should Shoulder the Financial Burden when Animals are Abused?

Local and state anti-cruelty statues play a critical role in ensuring the humane treatment of animals in a community. When the right laws are on the books, animals can be removed from potentially dangerous situations, out of the hands of those suspected of abusing and neglecting them. Let’s say, for example, that 20 dogs, seven horses, and 39 chickens are found to be neglected, living and suffering in deplorable conditions on someone’s private property. Then, under a state anti-cruelty ordinance, the animals are seized by law enforcement, and officials proceed to press charges against the animals’ owner. By all accounts, it would seem the system’s working. Right?

Brian and Kimi spent more than a year in a shelter post-rescue.

The answer might surprise you. Animal welfare organizations and local officials who work to protect animals often find themselves in situations where, it seems, no good deed goes unpunished.

It’s not uncommon that they—rather than the animals’ owners—have to bear a prohibitively heavy financial burden to care for the rescued animals.

The rescuing agencies are often required to hold seized animals for months or even years while the judicial system moves through what can be a painstakingly slow process. In puppy mill and animal fighting cases, agencies can seize dozens of animals who need extensive veterinary care. Needless to say, associated costs can soar, placing a burden on these local organizations that have limited means. It can even create a latent disincentive within the relevant agencies to enforce the laws originally meant to protect animals.

For the system to really work, these important anti-cruelty statutes need to be augmented, through such measures as “cost of animal care” laws. Already on the books and proven to work in Pennsylvania, Virginia and 14 other states, the most effective cost of animal care laws shift the financial burden of caring for animals lawfully seized from situations of cruelty, abuse, and neglect from county governments and nonprofit shelters to the animals’ owner, saving animals and tax dollars. Instead of leaving local taxpayers and nonprofit organizations to foot the significant cost, the owner, who’s legally responsible for the animals’ care, is held accountable.

These laws provide that if an agency is holding animals seized from cruelty, the agency can go to court to request a bond payment from the animals’ owner to help pay for the animals’ care. If the judge determines that the seizure and amount requested are reasonable, and the owner fails to pay the bond, the animals are relinquished to the agency and can be placed for adoption. The owner has the opportunity for an expedited hearing to challenge the legality of the seizure and the reasonableness of the bond requirement, respecting due process and fair treatment of the people involved.

In states without effective cost of animal care laws, some shelters often can’t even rescue animals suffering in their community because they simply don’t have the resources to provide long-term care. If they do intervene and seize neglected or abused animals, they can be forced to turn away or euthanize adoptable animals because of space and staff limitations. One Georgia officer noted that at a certain point, his agency had more animals held for court than were available for adoption. And for the animals held for court, their journey out of a bad situation can be a long one. Unable to move to a new home or family until the criminal case is resolved, they languish in custody like a seized or impounded car.

How often do we see in our work that the problems created by reckless individuals are passed on as a financial burden to the rest of society? Tigers bred for roadside zoos and photo ops, chimps used in TV commercials, Burmese pythons let loose by exotic pet owners to wreak havoc in the environment. The people creating the problem by abusing and neglecting animals should bear some responsibility for their care and shouldn’t dump the problem on others to clean up their mess.

Cost of animal care laws are a sensible solution for the animals, as well as taxpayers and the broader animal welfare infrastructure. HSLF and HSUS have joined with other partners such as the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the National Animal Control Association, and will work in states like Alaska, California, Georgia, Maryland, Montana and New Hampshire, to implement these policies. If your state doesn’t have such laws in place, urge your legislators to pass them.


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