Lawyers Journal

What’s new in animal law?

Massachusetts has historically been on the forefront of animal protection. In 1641, the first law in the nation to protect animals was included in our "Body of Liberties." Today, the commonwealth consistently is in the top tier -- as high as fourth -- in rankings comparing all 50 states and the District of Columbia on a wide range of animal protection laws; a rating likely to go even higher as a result of the most recent legislative session.

In the past few years, Massachusetts has increased the penalties for animal abuse and strengthened its animal fighting laws. Last session, a pet trust statute was enacted and a requirement that antifreeze sold at retail contain a bitter-tasting agent to deter animal and human ingestion. There have also been two animal-related ballot questions passed in recent history, one restricting body-gripping traps for furbearing animals and another outlawing greyhound racing. New statutes, pending legislation and case law provide a lot of material for discussion about the impact of the law on animals and the people who care for them.

The Animal Law Practice Group of the Massachusetts Bar Association's Civil Litigation Section was formed to provide a forum for education and the open exchange of ideas and experiences about legal issues concerning the treatment of all animals, the protections offered to animals, and the rights and responsibilities of people who have an interest in the animals. The ALPG was formed in response to a growing number of cases and statutes, and increasing public and practical interest. Currently, there are 142 law schools in the U.S. and Canada that have offered a course in animal law and 39 state and regional bar association animal law sections and committees, including an Animal Law Committee within the American Bar Association. The ALPG holds quarterly meetings discussing developing areas of animal law. Past topics have included the awarding of noneconomic damages for injuries to animals, the new pet trust statute, laws and regulations pertaining to animals and biomedical research, housing issues and pets, and pending legislation to end the intense confinement of certain farm animals. New members are welcome to join this group.

On Oct. 31, 2012, after more than six years of discussion in the legislature, perhaps the most comprehensive animal protection legislation ever passed in Massachusetts went into effect. Chapter 193 of the Acts of 2012 will improve the welfare of animals in the commonwealth in a myriad of ways. Supported by a coalition of animal control officers, veterinarians, animal welfare advocates, animal health officials and others, the bill primarily updated the laws in Chapter 140 that govern the framework for animal control. Several decades had passed since any significant revisions had been made to these laws that cover how municipalities handle stray, dangerous and injured dogs, kennels, licensing, euthanasia methods, animal health and more. These laws were outdated and did not reflect the nature of animal control in our cities and towns today or the relationship we have with animals in current society. In addition, these laws did not offer effective protection to the public -- a key function of animal control.

In addition to the updates to Chapter 140, the new law creates a statewide Homeless Animal Prevention and Care Fund, funded with voluntary contributions citizens can make when filing taxes starting this upcoming tax season. The fund, administered by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) with the assistance of a five-member advisory committee, will pay for spay and neuter surgeries and vaccinations for animals, as well as training for animal control officers. Unfortunately, there are still too many animals, particularly cats, who are free roaming or in animals shelters and animal control facilities across the state. The fund will not only save animal lives, it will reduce costs municipalities incur from handling homeless animals.

Animal control officers are often on the front line protecting citizens and the animals they encounter. The fund will provide these officers with the training they need to protect animals and the public with courses on safe animal handling, effective enforcement of animal control laws, disease prevention, disaster planning and other key areas. This training, provided through the fund per new Section 151C of Chapter 140 will be mandated once sufficient funding is accumulated. Rules and regulations will be established by the MDAR pursuant to Section 51 of the Act that will govern the training.

Section 11 of Chapter 209A was adopted as an amendment in the Massachusetts Senate and allows courts to include pets in domestic abuse prevention and harassment orders thereby ensuring protection to both human and animal victims of domestic violence. One study revealed that up to 40 percent of domestic violence victims don't leave or delay leaving their abusers because they are concerned about what will happen to their pets when they leave. Another study found that 71 percent of women entering women's shelters reported that their batterer had injured, maimed, killed or threatened family pets for revenge or to psychologically control victims. Massachusetts joins 22 other states with such a provision.

An amendment by the Massachusetts House of Representatives added detailed parameters relating to the outdoor confinement and tethering of dogs, including limitations on the type and length of tether. A provision in this section prohibits "cruel conditions" defined as filthy and dirty confinement conditions including, but not limited to, exposure to excessive animal waste, garbage, dirty water, noxious odors, or dangerous objects or other circumstances that could cause harm to a dog's physical or emotional health. This will give animal control officers additional tools to resolve problem situations that may not rise to a criminal offense under Chapter 272, but nonetheless should be remedied.

A comprehensive dangerous dog statute included in this Act has procedures to identify dangerous dogs, actions to prevent dog bites (restraint, muzzling, confinement and others) and strong fines if owners don't comply. The American Bar Association House of Delegates this summer passed Resolution 100 opposing breed discriminatory legislation and pointed out flaws in such policies. While a few local officials have argued to keep the small number of ordinances in our state that were based on breed, there is widespread agreement among experts that focusing on breed isn't effective; simply, as pointed out in the ABA report, there is no scientific evidence to show that laws targeting dogs based on their looks has decreased the incidence of dog bites in any community.

There are many other improvements. If a stray is euthanized, it must be done in a humane manner. Lost animals must be scanned for a microchip to increase chances of reunification with the animal's family. The term "dog officer" was finally changed to "animal control officer" to reflect that many officers handle cats and wildlife, not just dogs. The state can now appoint an animal control officer if a city or town fails to do so. A law passed in the 1980s, designed to ensure animals adopted from municipal or private shelters are spayed or neutered, was also updated and strengthened.

Animal control officers and municipal officials are in the process of adjusting to parts of the new framework. Unfortunately, having so many antiquated statutes now may require significant amendments to town and city bylaws. It will be important to ensure that such a long time does not pass again before these statutes are evaluated and updated, to ensure these statutes to protect animals and the public remain 
effective and that Massachusetts remains a leader in animal protection.

KARA HOLMQUIST is the director of advocacy for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She can be reached at (617) 541-5008.

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