Remember the bill that brought me to this blog? It was a convoluted, confused mess of a giveaway to animal abusers, legislation written so poorly that clear beneficiaries like the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association testified against it because it was so hard to understand, and wound up dying in committee with only its sponsor’s vote in its favor. Fast forward to 2012: A much better animal cruelty law reform bill passed with bipartisan support, and with the support of the Colorado animal rescue community. The 2012 legislation provides accountability for impound costs, allows an owner’s vet to examine impounded animals within 72 hours, and provides for the return of paid impound costs if the owner is found not guilty of charges relating to impounded animals. It’s a good bill, and rescue organizations–recognizing that they, too, need checks and balances–were in favor.
Now, fast forward to today.
Jerry Sonnenberg (R-HD65) apparently doesn’t think that 12-1125, which he cosponsored, was quite good enough. He’s back with HB 13-1125, which requires a veterinarian to conduct a personal inspection and determine in writing that impoundment is necessary to save the life of a livestock animal, before it may be impounded.
What’s wrong with that? Well, for starters, animal cruelty investigators aren’t typically veterinarians. In fact, I don’t know of one, save for the State Veterinarian (who doesn’t personally respond to cruelty reports) who is. Livestock veterinarians do make housecalls, but they’re not always available at a moment’s notice. As I saw during my time as an active horse rescue volunteer, board member, and “token cute kid in the truck who makes this look like something other than a cruelty check-up,” abusers aren’t exactly inclined to leave their stock in the same spot once they get wind that a veterinarian may be coming to impound their animals. When you’re dealing with 40 head of near-starvation cattle on 400 acres, or ten horses with open, festering wounds on 200 acres in the mountains, if it takes a couple days to get a vet out–as it can, in rural areas–you’re not going to see them again except as coyote-chewed ribcages sticking out of the snow.
Secondly, when lives are in imminent danger, treatment can’t begin on a rural hillside as easily as in a well-equipped rescue facility. If a properly trained cruelty investigator determines that an animal is eligible for impoundment under Colorado’s already-strict impoundment laws, which require that the animal be in extremely poor condition and deprived entirely of food, water, shelter, or (for companion animals) adequate veterinary care, why should she have to wait for a DVM to confirm her opinion, rather than transporting the animal to the DVM, where treatment can be given to save a life?
After the jump, why Sonnenberg really does mean well, despite all that.
There’s a tragic case near and dear to Sonnenberg’s heart underway in Clear Creek County right now. Bill Lee, aka Santa Claus, had all 106 of his animals seized for alleged cruelty late last year. Lee used to live near where I grew up, and at the time his animals were in fine shape–though that’s probably at least 15 years ago now.
Recently, Lee was injured in an auto accident, and he hasn’t been able to care for his animals himself in some time. To make a very long story short, aВ judge has determined that investigators overreached in seizing all of Lee’s animals and only filing cruelty charges based on the poor condition of a few individuals. In the cases of those few, however, the sympathetic position of “Santa Claus” shouldn’t be allowed to obscure what seems to be significant evidence of neglect. In the cases of the remainder, they will likely be returned to Lee.
Having over 100 animals is an enormously significant life choice. A jury of Lee’s peers will determine whether or not he, faced with serious injuries and inability to care personally for his livestock, crossed the line from compassionate owner to hoarder.
That said, a single tragedy, no matter how heart-wrenching, isn’t an excuse to gut protections for livestock animals in Colorado. Had last year’s legislation been in effect when Lee’s legal problems began, Lee would have had the right to a hearing to determine probable cause for impoundment; to have his own veterinarian examine his animals within 72 hours; and to receive any payments posted for their care refunded to him if he is not guilty of animal cruelty. According to the WestWord:
Representative Jerry Sonnenberg… the chairman of the House Agriculture,В Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, wrote a letter to the judge in Lee’s case explaining the changes to the law.В Sonnenberg, a farmer and rancher himself, says several things about Lee’s case concern him. “Cattle and horses lived outside without shelter for centuries,” he says. “And now for a court to determine it’s okay to take animals because they don’t have access to shelter worries me.” As for the frozen water cited in Lee’s case, he says that happens in the winter. Ranchers break the ice in the morning, as Lee did.
Sonnenberg is right, in part, but, under the law, “shelter” can be a simple lean-to or a stand of trees, which animals doВ typically have, under historic ranching conditions. They also would have had more than a small pen in which to roam, using their body heat and exertion to stay warm. An animal confined in a small paddock below-zero temperatures, with snow piling up on its body, needs shelter, even if that’s just a windbreak or a tree.
Under existing law, a neglected animal’s body condition score must indicate it is near death from starvation before it can be impounded due to lack of food. Animal cruelty investigators are trained in body condition scoring, which does not require veterinary education to be performed accurately. Also under existing law, another concern of Sonnenberg’s–the Lee case investigator’s objection to frozen water troughs, which were broken in the morning–is already addressed. When I worked with impounded horses, I frequently heard directly from investigators that even once-daily watering qualifies as “providing water” under the law. Frozen water was mentioned by an investigator who apparently was eager to seize numerous animals, and who may well have overreached. It was not, however, cause in and of itself to impound.
Existing animal cruelty law in Colorado is designed to permit impoundment only in cases where the animal’s life is, de facto, in danger due to the absence of food, water, shelter, or adequate veterinary care. Previous largescale livestock cruelty cases have left individual animals in good condition with the accused, even when it’s likely that investigators will have to return and impound additional animals in the future. Requiring investigators to await the arrival of a veterinarian in a rural or mountainous area wastes precious hours in cases where lives are in immediate danger, whereas a veterinarian is likely available in-house to treat impounded animals when they arrive at a rescue organization.
If Sonnenberg wishes to further amend a law he amended just last year, he should consider requiring the immediate return (at no expense to the owner) of any animal impounded for which corresponding cruelty charges are not filed. If a judge later determines that the owner is unable to care for any animals at all, provisions already exist under the law for the judge to order a convicted animal abuser to own no animals, meaning he or she would have to disperse any animals thus returned. If this had been the law of the land, most of Lee’s livestock would have been returned when investigators could file charges in the cases of only a handful.
You don’t even have to give me credit, Jerry.