Lawmakers look to make it easier to seize abused animals

Animal rescuers sometimes ignore cases of abuse and neglect because they can't afford to care for the animals, a humane society director told lawmakers this week.

Kinks in the legal process of civil forfeiture of animals make it time-consuming and prohibitively expensive to care for animals that should be taken away from abusive or neglectful owners, according to Ann Ward of the Central Vermont Humane Society.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a bill intended to streamline the civil forfeiture process for animals, a change pushed by the Department of Public Safety and the Humane Society of the United States. Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, is the sponsor of S.237.

The latest draft of the bill also directs the Department of Corrections to explore creating an animal training or adoption program in prison for seized animals.

Civil forfeiture of animals often happens in cases where a person is charged criminally with animal abuse and the person does not voluntarily relinquish ownership.

In those cases, local officials or a shelter seize the animal. While an animal cruelty case against the owner plays out in court, the state may file a separate civil proceeding to take ownership of the animal.

The problem, Ward and others said, is that the civil forfeiture court proceeding often drags on for months.

In the meantime, the animal is in limbo. It often needs substantial veterinary care, which the shelter cannot perform because it isn't the legal owner. In addition, it is expensive to house and care for animals while they wait for a forfeiture hearing to occur.

Sometimes that never happens. Ward said in seven years on the job, a forfeiture hearing has never happened in any of her cases because while owners usually fight a seizure, they end up signing the animals away, often as part of a plea deal.

Ward described a case of a poodle found plowed into a snowbank that the humane society seized. The dog's hair was dried into its eyes, it was incontinent, had massive infections and its teeth fell out when they opened its mouth, she said.

The Central Vermont Humane Society kept the dog for six months with no forfeiture hearing and during that time could only do "patchwork" veterinary care, Ward said, because they didn't have permanent custody.

While they wait, veterinarians worry they could be held liable for not keeping an animal alive. And in the end, the humane society is rarely paid back for its work, Ward said.

"With the situation as it is, with us not knowing when a forfeiture hearing is coming, with even a single dog costing thousands of dollars and months worth of time we simply can't act when it comes to cases of animal cruelty," Ward said, especially in cases of large animals such as horses.

Ward told the committee civil forfeiture cases are so expensive they have forced the Central Vermont Humane Society to downsize.

"Cases that we were involved in nearly bankrupted us," she said. They now only seize animals in the worst cases, she said.

Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette told the committee about the case of Larry Mason, a man found hoarding 32 German shepherds, many sick or dead, on a school bus. That case cost Bennington $42,000, he said.

In a different Bennington case, a person was found with two carloads of cats. After caring for the animals during court proceedings and having them adopted, Bennington's restitution was $92, Doucette said.

The committee Thursday discussed technical aspects of the bill's current draft, including what happens if someone appeals the forfeiture or the criminal charges (can the animals still be adopted out while an appeal is pending?) and what happens in cases where it is unclear who owns the pets.

They plan to take the bill up again next week. They deleted several changes to the bill to which Ward and other animal caretakers objected Wednesday. The bill will be redrafted to include a change proposed by Doucette about repayment to organizations that care for animals in limbo.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he would like people convicted of animal cruelty to be put on a registry similar to the child and elder abuse registry. People who abuse animals are more likely to abuse people, he said.

Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, objected, saying that could unfairly bar someone from getting a job.

Amy Davenport, chief administrative judge for the Vermont courts, also testified, saying the type of forfeiture hearing the bill creates could be lengthy and complex.

Bram Kranichfeld, executive director of the State's Attorneys and Sheriffs' Association, said the bill would actually make the process more defined and like a summary proceeding.

"That alone can be immensely helpful," he said.

His goal, he said, is to have the forfeiture process simple enough that state's attorneys will file for forfeiture.

CORRECTION: Sen. Dick Sears wants people convicted of animal cruelty to be placed on a publicly accessible list similar to the child and elder abuse registries. We originally reported that he wanted to create a list similar to the sex offender registry.


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