An Admirable Approach to Stopping Abuse
When handled correctly, animal-abuse registries can be an excellent tool for keeping pets out of the hands of those who would do them harm.
For those of us in the responsible pet industry, who care for animals on a daily basis and provide the food, products and services that allow pet owners to do the same, there are few things more heartbreaking or infuriating than animal abuse. With so much love for companion animals in the world, it’s almost unfathomable that there are those who actively seek to do them harm. But we know there are, and we are in a unique position to help.
Across the country, lawmakers at the state and county level have begun to consider the creation of animal-abuse registries. Pointing to studies that have found links between animal abuse and physical violence against people, supporters seek to prevent those who are convicted of these crimes from acquiring and harming additional animals.
At the beginning of this year, Tennessee became the first state in the country to pass a statewide animal-abuse registry. Under this program, which passed into law with bipartisan support, anyone convicted of an animal abuse offense is automatically added to the state’s registry by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) upon receipt of their information from the court clerk. First-time offenders appear on the registry for a period of two years, with subsequent offenses requiring posting for five years. To date, there are two individuals who have been added to the TBI Animal Abuse Registry website.
Tennessee’s approach is admirable for several reasons. First is its simplicity; by having the court clerk communicate the information directly to the TBI, they avoid situations where offenders fail to register. Second is its scale; by implementing a statewide registry, they have avoided creating a patchwork of county or local ordinances that could result in loopholes and miscommunications. Third is its implementation; by making the list available for review without imposing any kind of confrontation requirement, they provide valuable information to the general public without turning average citizens into deputized law-enforcement officers.
In approaching the issue this way, Tennessee has created an environment in which the responsible pet industry can be partners in implementation. We can work to educate staff and pet owners alike about signs and indicators of abuse and what to do in situations where something just doesn’t feel right. And we can do so knowing that our employees and customers won’t be placed in harm’s way as a result.
This is important, because there are other approaches to animal-abuse registries that, unfortunately, do not take the safety of store employees, shelter volunteers or even individuals attempting to rehome their pets into consideration. Several recently adopted animal-abuse registries require everyone who attempts to sell or transfer ownership to consult the registry and keep records of doing so.
A particularly onerous version of this legislation passed in May in Cook County, Ill. Under this law, the sale or transfer of any “live vertebrate creature except man” to someone on the abuse registry or anyone who “purchases any animal on behalf of any person having resided in Cook County and listed as an animal abuse offender” is a violation punishable by escalating fines for subsequent offenses. This would apply to pet stores, shelters, rescues, attendees at trade shows and expos, and even individuals in their own homes.
This is an excellent example of legislation that will carry significant unintended consequences. The first and most important is the dangerous situation in which it places employees, volunteers and others who may be forced to engage convicted animal abusers. Many volunteers and employees are younger people, just beginning their careers in animal care, or older individuals supplementing or transitioning into retirement. Given the connection between animal abuse and physical violence identified by proponents of these ordinances, requiring these animal care workers to confront convicted animal abusers carries significant risk and puts them into a de facto law enforcement role for which they are not properly trained or prepared.
Another likely consequence is a rise in shelter intake rates. As individuals realize that they could be subject to fines and penalties for failing to check a registry when attempting to rehome an animal for which they can no longer care, they are far more likely to simply relinquish their pets to local animal shelters or, worse, abandon them altogether.
Because we care for animals on a daily basis, we in the responsible pet industry are in an excellent position to assist law enforcement in educating the general public about the proper care for their companion animals. We are also able to be partners in protecting the health and well-being of pets. We at the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council are eager to work with interested lawmakers to discuss ways in which they can help by advancing thoughtful legislation like that passed in Tennessee.
Mike Bober is president and CEO of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. For more information on ways to engage the public and your elected officials, contact him at email@example.com.