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Dog bill ruffles police, activists

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Sunday News

April 28. 2018 10:40PM
These Great Danes were rescued from Christina Fay's Wolfeboro property last June. (Meredith Lee/The Humane Society of the United States)



CONCORD - Wolfeboro Police Chief Dean Rondeau says he's "disappointed, saddened and somewhat angered," after a House committee last week drastically altered a Senate bill designed to prevent large-scale animal abuse such as the infamous Great Dane case in his town.

"This is slipshod legislation and it's very shortsighted," Rondeau said of the amended measure, which the House will take up this week. "It places the citizens at risk and it places our animals in grave danger."

"It seems to me that special interest groups are well at work within that committee," Rondeau said.

But state Rep. John O'Connor, who chairs the House Environment and Agriculture Committee, says his committee "made vast improvements" to Senate Bill 569. And some animal-related groups agree.

Last summer, after 84 Great Danes were rescued from a filth-filled mansion in Wolfeboro, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, who lives in that town, put together a roundtable to look at strengthening the state's animal cruelty laws. The legislation that came out of his efforts had 12 bipartisan Senate sponsors and easily passed the Senate.

Currently, anyone who sells 10 litters or 50 puppies in a 12-month period has to be licensed as a commercial kennel. Christina Fay, the owner of the Wolfeboro dogs, was not licensed.

The bill says anyone who keeps seven breeding female dogs would be added to the definition of a commercial kennel. It also allows, if a court approves, for a "cost-of-care" bond to be posted by someone charged with animal neglect or cruelty, to cover the costs of caring for animals confiscated in such cases.

But last week, the House Environment and Agriculture Committee voted 15-1 to pass an amended version removing language about costs. Instead, it would create a study commission to look into such costs, as well as inspections and appropriations and positions needed by the state Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food to carry out such work.

O'Connor said forcing someone accused of animal abuse to put up a bond for the care of their confiscated animals is unconstitutional. "It took away from the due process," he said. "It takes away the accused's rights."

O'Connor said he wants the proposed commission instead to look for other funding options, such as setting aside money from dog licensing fees in a dedicated fund that could be tapped to care for confiscated animals. He'd like to see the state veterinarian review applications for funding and determine where such animals should be housed.

But Rondeau said removing the cost-of-care language puts the expense of caring for animals in abuse cases on the local taxpayers. In Wolfeboro, he said, the cost of caring for Fay's 84 Great Danes since last June is estimated at $1.7 million.

Fay was convicted of 17 counts of animal cruelty last month and is awaiting sentencing May 11. Her dogs remain in the care of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which built a shelter for that purpose.

The House committee's version also makes animal "hoarding" a misdemeanor. O'Connor said other states have similar statutes.

But Rondeau said he believes that language is unconstitutional. "You have to look at hoarding through the lens of mental illness," he said. "And we don't arrest people in this state - nor should we - ... because they're mentally ill. That's the wrong thing to do."

Devon Chaffee, executive director of the New Hampshire ACLU, voiced a similar concern. "This bill may criminalize individuals with mental health issues, as 'hoarding' is a psychiatric disorder, and it should be recognized as such, and not as a crime," she said.

Chaffee also said under the House amendment it appears that someone could be found guilty of hoarding "without the owner's actions having actually resulted in harm to the health or well-being of the animals."

The House version also added a long list of exceptions to the proposed seven "breeding female" rule, including those who raise dogs for hunting, field work, guarding and herding livestock, or who participate in "any lawful dog event" including dog shows, obedience and field trials, agility events and mushing.

Lindsay Hamrick, state director for HSUS, said relying on a "breeding female" definition, as many states do, is more enforceable than trying to count how many puppies have been sold in a year.

It's already difficult to prove that someone is operating an unlicensed commercial kennel, Hamrick said. "When you add in that kind of very broad exemption ... it creates such a huge potential loophole in the future," she said.

But Angela Ferrari, a board member of Dog Owners of the Granite State, which represents breeders, mushers and others, applauded the House Committee's work on the bill. She's happy that they carved out an exception for those who raise dogs for work, sports and other activities, "to show that we are not the targeted community for this law," she said.

"Just because we have seven breedable females doesn't mean we're a commercial breeding kennel," said Ferrari, who raises Doberman pinschers in Mont Vernon.

Last week, Bradley said he was shocked to see what happened to his bill, which also had the backing of Gov. Chris Sununu.

"I am extremely disappointed that my legislation has changed dramatically and as now proposed will neither prevent animal cruelty nor protect property taxpayers from the cost of care for animals," Bradley said Friday. "I am also extremely concerned that my legislation as now proposed will weaken existing law by making it more difficult to even report animal cruelty."

That's because the amended version prohibits anonymous written complaints about alleged abuse or neglect, he said.

Hamrick said most complaints about licensed facilities come from employees or others familiar with the operations. "So the ability for them to be an anonymous whistleblower is so crucial," she said.

And Chief Rondeau said removing whistleblower protection for someone who reports suspected animal abuse "sanctions the individual for doing the right thing, reporting a crime."

He said legitimate breeders have nothing to fear from Bradley's original bill. "If you're doing it correctly, which they say they are, what's the harm?" he asked.

Rob Johnson is policy director at the New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation, which opposes the Senate bill and supports the House committee's amendment.

The biggest problem was the cost-of-care language, Johnson said. Having the accused pay for someone else to care for their animals before they're convicted doesn't sit right, he said. "In this country, we fought a revolution over things like that," he said.

And there was no provision in the bill for someone to get their money back if they were found innocent, Johnson said.

Bradley said he was willing to amend his bill to include such a provision. But the committee chose instead to get rid of the cost-of-care section entirely.

Why does the Farm Bureau Federation even care about this bill, which specifically exempts livestock from its provisions? Johnson said for one thing, horses are not exempt from its requirements. And, he said, "More importantly is, we well realize that in years to come, that (livestock exemption) could be easily stricken."

Rondeau said he's convinced Bradley's bill would have prevented what happened in his town. With more than seven breeding females in her home, Fay would have had to be licensed as a commercial kennel, and her premises would have been subject to inspection.

If his animal control officer had gone inside Fay's mansion before last June's raid, he said, perhaps local authorities could have helped her. "Inspections are a good thing ... because they can catch a problem before it becomes a crisis," he said.

There were other large-scale animal abuse and neglect cases last year, in Belmont, Alexandria, Croydon and Berlin, Rondeau said. If the Legislature does not act, he warned, "These cases will continue."

And, he said, "They will only continue to get worse and more expensive."


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