When animals are harmed by their owner and lawfully seized, the rescue itself is just the beginning. These animals need and deserve good care, but as the property of the alleged abuser, they cannot be placed in a new home until legally forfeited, a process that can take several months or even years.
Unfortunately, during this “legal limbo,” even the best shelter care may not prevent these vulnerable animals from suffering serious behavioral deterioration due to chronic stress.
Our private and taxpayer-funded shelters are also being asked – unfairly – to shoulder the high costs of animal victims’ housing, food, and veterinary care despite this impeding their ability both to provide critical resources to other stray, abused, or at-risk animals and to participate in rescue operations. And if law enforcement is unsure that shelters can bear the costs of caring for seized animals, they may be reluctant to intervene in the first place.
The prospect of multiple animals requiring assistance only exacerbates these problems. Moreover, shelters are, predictably, rarely able to recover these costs from abusers after a criminal case’s conclusion months or years down the line. This means that right now, animals may not be removed from inhumane conditions, or their removal may be delayed — an unthinkable and unacceptable reality.
Thankfully, the New Jersey Senate unanimously passed a bill that would resolve these problems by shifting the costs of caring for animal cruelty victims from animal shelters and taxpayers back to the owners from whom they needed to be seized and allowing shelters to seek these critical funds “in real time.” Sponsored by Senator Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), this lifesaving Cost of Animal Care legislation (S.981/A.2354) is poised for enactment if advanced in the state Assembly.
Specifically, the Cost of Animal Care bill would authorize a shelter to seek court-approved reasonable, ongoing animal care expenses from an owner once an animal has been seized due to alleged cruelty.
The owner would be given a hearing in Superior Court where the shelter, or its agent, such as a municipal or county prosecutor, would be required to prove that the animal was taken into custody either for the animal’s protection or for needed medical attention based on evidence including the animal’s condition, the conditions under which the animal was kept, and whether veterinary care was provided.
If persuaded, the court would order the owner to pay the costs of care or relinquish the animal to the shelter to be made available for adoption.
Under New Jersey law, an animal may be seized only if a court agrees there is sufficient probable cause to issue a warrant for suspected cruelty, or, in certain circumstances, if law enforcement has a reasonable basis to believe the animal requires immediate assistance to prevent injury or death. (Importantly, the proposed legislation would extend this much-needed “emergency doctrine” to all animal cruelty situations.)
Multiple layers of due process protections are thus embedded in the proposed legislation, the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions, and current statute, helping to ensure that owners’ rights are preserved while also, crucially, protecting animals from harm.
Most states have some form of cost of animal care law, including Connecticut and New York, whose laws recently helped expedite the rescue of almost 100 dogfighting victims. Unless New Jersey enacts its own law, dogfighting and other animal victims will languish in shelters while their cases proceed, or worse — the fight bust or other animal rescue will never occur at all, given the daunting burden of caring for so many animals for an uncertain period of time.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The product of over two years of collaboration by multiple stakeholders, including the Administrative Office of the Courts, the implementing agency, the Cost of Animal Care bill would ensure that abusive owners cover the ongoing costs of caring for animal victims or relinquish them to the shelter to begin the next chapter of their lives.
This commonsense legislation is essential for the protection of New Jersey’s shelters and animal victims. We thank the New Jersey Senate and Senate President Scutari for approving this lifesaving bill and urge the Assembly and Speaker Coughlin to pass A.2354 in the Assembly to give rescued animals the chance they deserve to find a safe, loving home.
Written by Debora M. Bresch, Esq., Senior State Legislative director, ASPCA and Brian R. Hackett, Legislative Affairs manager, The Animal Legal Defense Fund