Proposed Kentucky Legislation Would Help Lighten Financial Strain From Animal Control In Abuse Cases

Animal cruelty and neglect cases are often fraught with legal and logistical challenges for the law enforcement or animal control officers handling them – not the least of which is what to do with animals that must be seized. A 2016 case of large-scale equine neglect in Mercer County, Ky., highlighted many of those challenges as dozens of horses had to be kept in place and fed by volunteers with donated hay while authorities investigated and worked to determine their ownership. One of the challenges in that case was finding someplace for the horses to go once volunteers received clearance to move them.

That case received plenty of publicity and horses were dispersed to rightful owners or to rescue facilities quickly, but in many lesser-known cases in more outlying areas, animal control officers don’t have many resources to care for seized animals. Animals seized in the course of a cruelty investigation cannot be adopted out or sold until the case is closed or unless the owner gives consent, sticking already-strapped local law enforcement with months’ worth of bills. When horses are involved, a seizure can be even more expensive than a case limited to dogs or cats.

Kentucky State Rep. Cherylynn Stevenson (D-District 88) is hoping new legislation could make that burden lighter. HB100 could make the owner of an animal seized during the course of a cruelty investigation responsible for the cost of the animal’s care during the course of the criminal case or until the animal is relinquished.

The bill was born from a discussion Stevenson had with an animal control officer in her home district of Lexington, but improving Kentucky’s animal care laws has been on her radar for some time.

“As I was campaigning and going door to door canvassing, we realized that nine out of ten houses in my district had an animal, so we started carrying cat treats and dog treats with us,” said Stevenson. “We realized that it was a really great bridge for the political divide. A lot of people care about animals and want to see [animal welfare] improve here in our state.”

For many years the Animal Legal Defense Fund placed Kentucky last on its rankings of states based on the strength of their animal welfare laws. Stevenson said that ranking may improve slightly after the state amended a law last year that had previously prohibited veterinarians from reporting suspected animal cruelty.

The cost of seized animals is no small consideration – Stevenson recalled one seizure of over 100 cats where board bills for the animals topped $80,000. Many local authorities don’t have facilities to house horses at all and are reliant on non-profits to find a stall or pasture space. Then they’re faced with the fact that horses are even more expensive to feed and maintain.

“I think we’ll see a greater number of animals be saved if this goes through, because there will be a recourse then for all the upkeep, any vet care,” she said. “Ultimately if shelters aren’t doing this and taxpayers aren’t paying for it, that’s a win for everybody.”

Legislation on other types of animal welfare topics has sometimes faced an uphill battle in Kentucky, where agriculture is prevalent and many residents have strong feelings about private property rights. Stevenson admitted this bill could face some opposition from those factions, as well as from defense attorneys who might bristle at the idea their clients could face financial judgments in addition to fines or other sanctions. It’s not uncommon for attorneys or clients to prolong cases a part of their legal strategy, which would result in a higher care bill for the animal’s owner under the proposed legislation. Sometimes, Stevenson said, animals are returned to their owner prior to the end of a case because the county can no longer afford to care for them.

The bill does have bipartisan support however, and the Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP) has placed its support behind the language.

“I think getting that equine stamp of approval is very helpful,” she said. “I think there’s going to always be some folks out there who look at that property rights issue and they’re not going to budge. And that’s ok – not everyone has to agree all the time … we’re trying to be as transparent as we can and have conversations with folks before it comes up before committee.”

Stevenson expects the bill to come before committee on Feb. 17.

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