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Lawmakers Propose Animal Cruelty Civil Lawsuits

State Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Astoria, is pictured during a January news conference in the state Capitol.

A state lawmaker wants to make it easier for animal welfare organizations to take animal cruelty cases to court in civil cases.

Assemblyman John McDonald, D-Albany, and Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Astoria and deputy Senate majority leader, recently introduced A.9215/S.8543. McDonald and Gianaris want to create a civil process allowing humane law enforcement agencies to address animal cruelty cases involving companion animals that suffer psychological or physical injury or pain or that don’t receive food, water, shelter or veterinary or behavioral care necessary to preserve the physical health and mental well-being of an animal.

New York law only provides a criminal process for adjudicating animal cruelty cases. There is currently no civil remedy to effectively protect companion animals from mistreatment.

“A civil process for addressing animal mistreatment is critical given the significant challenges that come with enforcing criminal animal cruelty statutes,” McDonald and Gianaris wrote in their legislative justification.

Civil court cases would allow a judge who finds a companion animal found to be mistreated or not properly cared for can order the animal’s owner or caretaker to provide care or remove the animal from the person’s custody to ensure proper care.

Assemblyman John McDonald, D-Albany, is pictured during a news conference recently in Albany.

Authorized organizations would be allowed to petition the court for an ex-parte emergency care and inspection order

should the owner or caretaker fail to provide care after written notice was given. Once the order is issued, the court would be required to schedule an animal care hearing within a specified time period. The proposal also spells out an appeals process.

Gianaris and McDonald said the civil lawsuits would create a faster process to deal with animal cruelty or neglect cases.

“For one thing, the animal itself often serves as evidence of the alleged crime, but unlike all other forms of evidence, pets are also personal property and are living, breathing, sentient creatures. They cannot be placed in secure storage unattended, or in an evidence locker until a criminal case is adjudicated. Even when removed from severely neglectful or abusive situations, the quality of life for a seized pet can diminish significantly in a relatively short period of time without a permanent living situation. At the same time, shelters have no way of knowing when a criminal case will be resolved; depending upon numerous factors beyond their control, a conviction or dismissal can take months, if not years. During this same period, costs borne by impounding organizations increase proportionally and quickly become prohibitive. Animals entrusted to their care require food, water, veterinary care, and behavioral, enrichment and volunteer services that must be continuously available to the shelter’s entire population,” they wrote in their legislative justification.

Paying for care for neglected animals has long been a problem. McDonald and Gianaris noted a recent situation in the city of Watervliet when the city incurred a $30,000 bill for sheltering costs in an animal cruelty case. Some shelters won’t harbor pets seized in an animal cruelty investigation due to space and shortages of staff, which makes it more difficult for agencies to investigate complaints. In another case reported by the ASPCA in NYC, a routine welfare check at a small home in Queens alerted police to a situation that led to the removal of more than 70 animals from an aging mother and her daughter. A petition was filed with the court for the owners to post a security bond for the care of their animals at ASPCA’s animal hospital, in an attempt to get the court to order forfeiture of the animals – but the case took more than a year to litigate while racking up more than $420,000 in medical care and sheltering costs.

In 2021, the Hudson Valley Humane Society in Rockland County was called to a home where they found two dogs chained to an outbuilding. The shelter eventually gained access to the home and seized 24 adult dogs. The owner, a man in his early 60s, was a classic animal hoarder, using multiple veterinarians to hide how many animals he actually owned. The case went on for 18 months until finally the court recognized the overwhelming cost Hudson Valley Humane Society had absorbed by awarding the shelter custody of the animals. Nonetheless, the shelter housed the dogs for 18 months, meaning other homeless companion animals couldn’t be sheltered due to space constraints. The total cost of care in the case was $75,000 in veterinary bills and close to $260,000 in daily care at a rate of $20 a day.

A 2023 case in the Finger Lakes cited by Gianaris and McDonald resulted in between $75,000 and $100,000 in charges for the Finger Lakes SPCA after a seizure of 13 dogs by the county sheriff. The court case lasted almost a year, and the SPCA ended up paying about 80% of the cost to house the animals.

“While nothing in this measure would prevent the pursuit of criminal charges for any situation regarding suspected animal cruelty when warranted, the establishment of a civil process option – whereby a court can render a decision, based on the evidence, regarding an animal owner’s ability to care for a companion animal – is good for law

enforcement, good for shelters, good for social justice and of course good for companion animals,” Gianaris and McDonald wrote in their legislative justification. “This procedure is not a new concept; it is used successfully in other states where, when appropriate, it provides a sound and fair means to wrest animals from harm’s way without having to charge the owner with misdemeanor or felony-level crimes.”

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