JUNE 2010 UPDATE: After passing the California Senate Judiciary Committee, SB 1277 did not advance further because the California Judiciary Committee said it would cost a prohibitive $750,000 to $2 million to implement the registry. But according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, other states have estimated implementation costs to be only $19,000 to $60,000.
If a California bill is approved, the state will be the first in the U.S. to require adults convicted of animal cruelty felonies to register with their local police and provide their names, home addresses, places of employment and current photographs. That information, along with the offense, would be posted online. (The website pet-abuse.com currently offers a limited registry of animal abusers in the U.S.)
The bill, SB 1277, was introduced on February 19 by Dean Florez, the State Senate’s majority leader and chairman of the Food and Agriculture Committee. He wrote it with help from the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), an animal-protection group that created the website exposeanimalabusers.org to promote efforts to pass this law in other states.
A purpose of the registry is to make it easier for animal shelters and rescue organizations to identify people who should never have pets. And since animal abusers often move on to violence against people (serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and “Boston Strangler” Albert DeSalvo all started out by torturing animals), it could prove helpful to law enforcement.
The abuses covered by the bill include the malicious and intentional maiming, mutilation, torture, wounding or killing of a living animal, including domestic and farm animals. The law would also target pet hoarders and animal-fighting-ring operators who have felony convictions.
“We think California is primed for this kind of a bill,” Florez told Time.com. Florez said about 60 percent of Californians own pets and another 20 percent own farm animals. “We’ve progressed to the point where we as a legislature are moving in a direction of this bill, which is ultimately, how do we in essence prevent repeat offenses when it comes to cruelty to animals in the state of California?”
In a press release, ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells stated, “Animal abuse is not only a danger to our cats, dogs, horses, and other animals, but also to people. Many animal abusers have a history of domestic violence or other criminal activity, and there is a disturbing trend of animal abuse among our country’s most notorious serial killers.”
Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles, wrote in her blog, “As animal abuse is a violent act, often a precursor to violence against people, frequently a symptom of problems in children, and always present in the criminal histories of violent felony offenders – it must be taken seriously. It is also critical that in practice, such a registry would protect animals from future abuse, further public safety, and could withstand the necessary constitutional scrutiny to justify the public branding of offenders.”
Similar bills proposed in Colorado, Rhode Island and Tennessee did not pass.
Opponents argue that it isn’t fair to put a life-long label on offenders who have served their sentences. Randall Lockwood, a cruelty expert with the ASPCA, told usatoday.com that offenders might plead guilty to lesser offenses to avoid being listed in the registry.
“An upside is that a registry enlists the public in the monitoring process,” he said. “But many worry a spirit of public vigilantism could arise, prompting people to take revenge on an offender who in their minds has not been suitably punished by the legal system.”
Joshua Marquis, a district attorney and member of the ALDF board, told The New York Times that such concerns were unfounded. “Does it turn that person into a pariah? No,” he said. “But it gives information to someone who might be considering hiring that person for a job. I do not think for animal abusers it’s unreasonable considering the risk they pose, much like the risk that people who abuse children do.”
The registry would cost approximately $500,000 to $1 million to launch, and then between $300,000 and $400,000 annually to maintain. It would be funded by a 2- to 3-cent tax on pet food. According to Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, this tax could pose a major hurdle to the bill’s passage. He told The New York Times it was “an extremely controversial idea” and unpopular with the pet food industry and tax-opposing Republicans. “The idea of that succeeding in this climate in California is not high,” he said.
Ed Rod, vice president of government affairs for the American Pet Products Association, told Time.com the tax is unfair to pet owners. “You’re looking at pet owners paying for something that’s really going to benefit everyone,” he said. “And animal abuse certainly affects pets, but it also affects agricultural animals as well, and in this case I don’t believe there is any provision to impose a fee on livestock feed. The goal we support, certainly, but we think this is kind of a blunt instrument to reach that goal.”
The Tennessee bill that didn’t pass would have required those convicted of animal abuse to pay $50 toward the operation of a registry. Florez told Time.com that the California legislation would consider charging a similar fee. However, Bernstein told Time.com that fees paid by convicted animal abusers may not be enough to fund the registry.
“The bottom line is that there aren’t a lot of felony convictions for animal abuse in the state of California,” she said. Bernstein also noted on her blog that, as it is currently written, the legislation is “fraught with the possibility of unintended consequences.”
“For example, this version of the statute mandates that a person convicted of the felony of dog theft be listed on the abuse registry,” she wrote. “In other words, one who steals a valuable dog for a resale profit, or, an over zealous animal lover who steals a dog that appears to be mistreated, (illegal but it happens) could be placed on this abuse registry without ever having to abuse the dog. Is this what the author intended?”
A two-thirds majority is required to turn the bill into law. When Florez was asked if he was concerned about the Republican minority who have pledged not to raise taxes, he told Time.com, ”In this case, the issue is simple. Do Republican members … really want to be seen on the side of animal abuse? I don’t think they do.”
i Love Dogs believes a registry is necessary to protect both animals and humans, since it is a proven fact that most violent criminals have a history of animal abuse. It would also prevent shelters and rescues from inadvertently releasing homeless pets to anyone convicted of animal abuse. A few pennies more for pet food is a small price to pay for the ability to protect our animals from known abusers.
Here’s how you can take action to start an animal abusers registry:
- If you live in California, urge your state senator to vote for SB 1277. Otherwise, contact your local legislators and ask them to enact a registry where you live.
- Sign the Expose Animal Abusers petition.
- Let Dean Florez know you support the bill.