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Two days before Christmas, officers from the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area (HSHA) responded to a call about possible mistreatment of horses
They couldn’t walk the farm without a search warrant, explains Amy Kaunas, the humane society’s executive director, but the one horse they could see from the road “was absolutely emaciated.” The owner wasn’t home, so they left a note on her door, giving her a week to provide veterinary care for the starving horse, and two weeks to supply a vet’s report on the rest of the herd.
Five days later, after several unanswered follow-up calls, an officer drove to the farm and found the horse dead. The HSHA obtained a search warrant that day and removed five horses who, in Kaunas’s words, were “really ready to drop.”
The humane society charged the owner with six counts of animal cruelty. After another two weeks with no response to additional warnings, HSHA officials got a second warrant and removed the remaining horses, for a total of 29. The owner, charged with 30 counts of animal cruelty, pleaded not guilty.Because Pennsylvania doesn’t have a bonding law—which would require the defendant to cover the costs of caring for the animals pending the trial’s outcome—owners accused of cruelty don’t have an incentive to settle quickly, Kaunas says. A trial scheduled for mid-February was postponed when the owner’s attorney filed for a continuance—a tactic that’s typical in cruelty cases, Kaunas adds. “They do procedural tactics like this because they know that you’re footing the bill, and it’s really expensive,” she adds. “And they’re hoping that you’ll just say, ‘You know what? Forget it.’”
HSHA isn’t dropping the case, but it is stuck with the bill, which amounts each month to about $4,900 in boarding fees and another $1,000 for hay, bedding, and feed. HSHA had spent about $13,000 as of mid-February and expects its costs to hit $100,000 before the case closes. For a private nonprofit with a $2 million annual budget, Kaunas says, “that’s a lot of coin.”
Animal welfare advocates around the country often come up against this issue when taking on a large-scale cruelty case. Without a good bonding law in place, the expense of conducting a major seizure can give perpetrators a bargaining chip for reduced charges; they know that a humane group will often settle for a lighter charge in order to gain custody of the animals.
Beyond the legal issue and the expense—which can be back-breaking for smaller organizations and hugely challenging even for large municipalities—there are consequences for the animals themselves, who can linger in limbo for months, sometimes kept in cages the whole time. In some cases, the lack of a good law can render other animal cruelty laws toothless: Organizations that have been through the stress and financial expense of a large-scale cruelty prosecution are often loathe to intervene in future cases because of the expense, making otherwise strong animal cruelty laws next to meaningless because the cases aren’t brought.
Animal advocates have sought to remedy the situation by pushing for bonding laws as well as civil forfeiture laws, which help agencies quickly gain ownership of animals seized from unfit owners. It came too late for the HSHA on this case, but a bonding bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature in early 2013. The state House overwhelmingly approved it in January, and at press time the measure awaited action by the state Senate.
“It’s clearly needed,” says Sarah Speed, Pennsylvania state director for The HSUS. The state has very few municipal shelters, leaving private nonprofits to handle animal control and the bulk of animal cruelty cases. “And since those shelters have to find a way in their budgets to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every time a large-scale cruelty case comes to them, it’s breaking these shelters.”
Kaunas says the case—the largest equine case the HSHA has ever done—“has really stretched our staff and really stretched our resources.” One silver lining she sees is that the case, because it’s attracted a lot of local media attention, is serving as an example of why Pennsylvania needs a bonding law.
The Ties That Bond
For John Goodwin, bonding and forfeiture laws boil down to a matter of animal owners paying their fair share for the problems they create.
Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy for The HSUS, explains that it’s usually county governments (and ultimately taxpayers) who pay when animals are seized in cruelty, fighting, or hoarding cases and placed in municipal shelters. But in states with bonding laws, courts can order the owner/criminal defendant to front the money for animal care. If the defendant refuses, he loses custody of the animals, who can then be put up for adoption quickly rather than languishing in cages.
In states without bonding laws, The HSUS has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to care for seized animals. “Rather than have a charity’s money be used for these responsibilities, we’d prefer to see the burden be placed on the criminal defendant that put these animals in this situation in the first place,” he says.
Bonding laws are typically part of the state cruelty code and a key to making sure that it’s enforceable, notes Adam Parascandola, director of cruelty response for The HSUS. When no bonding law exists, agencies often shy away from tackling large cruelty cases because they can’t afford to take them on.
Leighann McCollum, The HSUS’s Tennessee state director, notes that about half the counties in her state have no municipal animal shelter. If she contacts a rural sheriff’s department about even a relatively small case—say, 20 cats being hoarded—the department is likely to balk. “Not having the facilities to house the animals, and not having the budget to house the animals, really, plays into their decision as to whether they move forward on animal cruelty cases or not,” McCollum says. Ironically, according to Goodwin, small, rural counties often tend to be the locations with large puppy mills or dogfighting rings, but their smaller tax base makes large-scale animal rescues fiscally impossible. In those areas, a good bonding law is absolutely critical.A strong law requires a bond hearing within 10 days of seizure, Goodwin says. The defendant should be forced to pay up front, then every 30 days if the case drags on. If the defendant fails to meet his responsibility, he loses custody of the animals, and they become candidates for adoption; he can also choose to relinquish them.
Bonding and civil forfeiture laws have grown more popular in recent years, and about two-thirds of the states have either a bonding law, a civil forfeiture law, or both. In some states, the bonding law is limited, for example, to dogfighting cases.
Civil forfeiture laws are ideal, in Parascandola’s view, because they provide for mini-trials where both prosecutors and defendants can call witnesses. The seizing agency typically makes the case that the animals’ owner is unable to care for them properly, so his ownership rights should be terminated. The court can order the animals to be permanently transferred to the custody of the jurisdiction that seized them—a scenario that costs the owner nothing. Everyone gets a hearing, and whether the owner gets to keep the animals is decided by the court, not by the owner’s ability to pay. The forfeiture process also decides the disposition of the animals quickly, which is fair, Parascandola adds.
Lift Every Voice
Many shelters and rescue groups recognize the importance of good bonding and forfeiture laws, but need a little nudge to start lobbying their lawmakers, Parascandola notes. State animal control and humane associations can be extremely valuable in pushing for legislation, because elected officials tend to listen to taxpayer-funded agencies.
In Pennsylvania, the local sheltering community got heavily involved in the push for a bonding bill. The state’s federation of humane societies submitted 50 letters of support, representing nearly every county in Pennsylvania. “If you can go into your legislator’s office with a letter of support from your local shelter, it’s a very powerful thing,” Speed says.
“We really are the experts in these situations, and you have to make sure that your voice is heard,” agrees Kaunas. “… No one can explain it better than an organization like ours that enforces the cruelty code, the devastating effects these cases can have.”
Some lawmakers, particularly those in states where property rights are a big concern, worry that these laws could result in people being deprived of ownership before they’re convicted of a crime. “It is not an easy sell,” McCollum says.
But the issues can be framed in a way that makes lawmakers more receptive.Goodwin finds that legislators need to understand that a bonding law will respect due process. Hearings will be held, and prosecutors will need to show that there was good cause for taking the animals in the first place. He points out that when the criminal defendant possessed the animals, she was responsible for their feeding and care—so it’s only fair that she continue to bear that responsibility while they’re in a shelter awaiting the case’s outcome. Most states allow defendants to recoup their bond money if they’re found not guilty.
McCollum says a bonding bill can be promoted as legislation that covers the costs of care. “It’s something that can save taxpayers money,” she says. “It’s putting the burden of caring for these animals back on the owner who should have provided care in the first place, as opposed to putting that burden on the shelters … or the taxpayers.”
In Alabama, a conservative state where many lawmakers resist anything that even hints of animal protection, it’s always a challenge to frame issues in a way that engages elected officials, says Mindy Gilbert, The HSUS’s state director there. But two years ago she successfully lobbied to amend the bonding and forfeiture component of the state’s dogfighting law. Alabama has a good bit of dogfighting, and she thought some law enforcement agencies would be more likely to pursue cases if shelters had a way to recoup their expenses.
Gilbert says some public prosecutors argued that the costs incurred were simply part of enforcing the law. She countered that those costs were being forced on animal welfare agencies whose mission is not law enforcement. “They really hadn’t thought about that,” she says.
Alabama mandates that every county have a shelter, but 26 counties aren’t in compliance. In those 26 counties, small nonprofits often house animals seized in dogfighting busts, and end up having to raise extra donations or spend a significant chunk of their operating budget.
“The law enforcement agency’s not housing the dogs. The district attorney’s office isn’t housing the evidence. It’s very often your little local shelter, who may or may not be an arm of the government,” Gilbert says. “… And that really was not a difficult argument to make, and it was pretty well-received by the legislature.”
Field officers may encounter large-scale cruelty and neglect situations that compel intervention, and shelters shouldn’t have to fear emptying their coffers—penalizing their other lifesaving programs—when deciding whether to pursue a case. Since the lack of good bonding and forfeiture laws hits shelters directly in the pocketbook, Goodwin encourages them to make their voices heard.
“This is something that affects any animal shelter,” he says. “And for us to rectify the situation and make sure that every state has the right laws on the book to cover this, we all need to be getting political, talking to our state legislators, and working together to get the right laws in place.”