Vermont lawmakers want to improve animal welfare systems with new bill
Vermont lawmakers want to change the way the state enforces its animal welfare laws by creating a new division in the Department of Public Safety.
When someone sees a dog chained up outside on a frigid winter night, they’re supposed to call their town’s duly elected animal control officer. But animal welfare advocates say those officers aren’t always trained on how to intervene. And even if they’re well versed in state statute, they don’t always have space or other resources to board the abused animal.
Erika Holm, co-executive director at the Central Vermont Humane Society, said this poorly funded patchwork system of oversight and enforcement has failed the animals and people it’s designed to protect.
“It really needs to have one place that it resides so that every community in Vermont is not handling these issues differently,” Holm told Vermont Public on Thursday. “And some are not handling them at all.”
Bills introduced in both the House and Senate attempt to address the issue by creating a new Division of Animal Welfare at the Department of Public Safety.
Craftsbury Rep. Katherine Sims, a lead sponsor of House bill 626, said the division would become a central clearinghouse for all complaints about animal neglect or abuse. She said she introduced the bill after hearing from animal control officers in her district that lack the resources to handle cases in their communities.
“Right now we have a pretty disjointed system where there are needs in our communities, but there is no one unified coordinated system to help make sure that our towns have the resources that they need to handle the issues that come our way,” Sims said Thursday.
The legislation arrives on the heels of a Jan. 15 report from the Department of Public Safety that laments a “very fragmented and ineffective system for ensuring the humane and proper treatment of animals and the protection of the health and safety of Vermonters.”
The report, which was requested by lawmakers, found that when it comes to animal welfare, “The buck really stops with no one person or agency.”
"Right now we have a pretty disjointed system where there are needs in our communities, but there is no one unified coordinated system to help make sure that our towns have the resources that they need to handle the issues that come our way."Craftsbury Rep. Katherine Sims
That same report recommends the creation of a Division of Animal Welfare in the Agency of Agriculture. Sims and other lawmakers say the Department of Public Safety is a more appropriate place to house the division, since it’s already directed by statute to enforce animal welfare laws.
A spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott said addressing the inadequacies in the current system is “important work.” But he said the legislation is unnecessary, since the Department of Fish and Wildlife is already in the process of ramping up enforcement efforts.
“As we finalize our budget recommendation, you can expect to see further support of these enforcement efforts,” Scott’s spokesperson, Jason Maulucci, said in an email Thursday.
Holm praised the work being done at Fish and Wildlife. But she said anything short of a statewide, centralized intake for all animal welfare calls will perpetuate geographic inequities in response.
“Right now the wardens are only doing the investigation and stepping in to locations of towns that do not have their own law enforcement agency,” Holm said. “When [local police departments] have multiple murders of people to investigate, an animal welfare charge falls pretty far down the totem pole for them.”
Holm also said the state needs to assume responsibility for sheltering animals that are seized by law enforcement officials. She said local organizations like her often take on the responsibility of boarding those animals. And she said they don’t have the capacity to perform that work.
“As nonprofits … we should not be doing the state’s work,” she said. “We’re here for the animals, but we need the state to be stepping up in what their responsibility is.”
Sims said lawmakers don’t yet know how much the new division would cost, or how many additional employees the state would need to hire to perform enforcement actions. But Washington County Sen. Anne Watson said in an email that a unified approach to animal welfare issues would allow for economic efficiencies that aren’t feasible under the fragmented system Vermont employs now.
“By investing resources in a more streamlined response system, we hope to prevent these expensive situations from getting out of hand, and more importantly, we hope to be able to respond more quickly and efficiently to complaints in order to remove animals from harm’s way,” Watson said.
“As nonprofits … we should not be doing the state’s work. We’re here for the animals, but we need the state to be stepping up in what their responsibility is.”Erika Holm, co-executive director at the Central Vermont Humane Society
The recent surge in unregulated animal rescue operations, Holm and other advocates say, has increased the number of animal welfare cases organizations like theirs are being called on to address. Many of those cases, Holm said, often involve dogs that have been transported to Vermont from southern states.
“It’s really become a kind of the Wild West of people bringing animals up from down south, and there are some really unfortunate outcomes and consequences to the explosion of that in the state,” she said.
The law would also create a new regulatory framework for animal rescue organizations.
“There is no oversight. There’s no regulation,” Holm said. “And it really is the minimum standards that we are asking for in this bill.”
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