Not a week goes by without a story in the news of a case of animal abuse or neglect somewhere in the country. This week the big story was in Great Falls Montana, where John Carman appeared in court to face charges of aggravated animal cruelty, stemming from leaving over 200 animals in a barn without food or water. All of the animals starved to death. Unbelievably, Carman is only facing a $2,500 fine, and a maximum of two years in jail. While Montana is one of forty-six states with felony-level charges for animal cruelty, it was recently ranked 35th in the nation by the Humane Society of the United States for its animal protection laws, so the likelihood that Carman will truly pay for his egregious crime is slim.
California, on the other hand, was ranked number one in the rankings thanks to its laws protecting companion animals, horses, farmed animals and wild animals from a variety of abuses.
California’s animals may have even more protection soon, if a proposed state law creating a criminal registry for animal abusers passes the state legislature. Last week, state Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) proposed the bill, which would be the first of its kind in the nation, and would require anyone convicted of felony animal cruelty to register with the police, as sex offenders are required to do under the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Act. In addition, the law would also mirror Megan’s Law, which requires states to notify the public of sex offenders in their communities. SB 1277 would require that California not only maintain a database of animal abusers, but that names, addresses, and photos would be posted online. (Currently, there are a handful of private websites that list such abusers’ names, but none are comprehensive.) The bill would be funded by a tax on pet food.
What would be the effects of such a law? According to a 2009 study, Megan’s Law has failed to deter sex crimes or reduce the victims of sex crimes. Still, the public still supports both the sex offender registry as well as the public notification requirement, and proponents claim that it allows parents to better protect their children, since parents can find out whether sex offenders live in their communities.
SB 1277 could be expected to function in a similar manner. While it would likely not discourage people from abusing their animals, it would give the public—in particular those who either sell or adopt out animals to the public—a way to find out whether potential adopters are convicted animal abusers. Currently, those of us who run animal rescue organizations have no way to find out the background of potential adopters, and this could be one more tool to help us to evaluate strangers.
Of course the proposed legislation will be heavily fought on the grounds that it curtails the civil liberties of those who have broken the law and who have “done their time.” But unlike sex offenders, animal abusers—even those convicted of felony abuse charges—rarely pay more than a small fine and even more rarely serve any time in prison. In one recent case, Liz Carlisle, a young Petland employee who drowned two rabbits and then posted a photo of herself--smiling gleefully--holding their soaking corpses on her Facebook page, plead guilty to two counts of animal cruelty and was sentenced to probation. At least with an animal abuser registry, not only could animal adoption agencies find out about Carlisle’s past, but future employers—like Petland—could as well. This is a woman who should never be around animals again, and unfortunately, there is currently no legal way to keep animals safe from her.
Finally, one reason why sex offenders—and not bank robbers, drunk drivers, or even murderers—are the target of legislation like Megan’s Law is that they are especially prone to recidivism. Animal abusers are too. Hoarders, for example, are especially likely to offend again, and a law like Florez’s would provide the public with enough information to make it at least more difficult for them to acquire animals again.