Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, better be ready to get some phone calls.
Nava will introduce three pieces of animal rights legislation on Thursday morning, jumping squarely into a contentious issue that could bring large numbers of advocates to the Capitol, and give Nava some wanted, and unwanted, press attention.
The first bill, AB 241, would limit the number of intact—not spayed or neutered—dogs or cats at any one facility to 50. This is designed to take aim at so-called “puppy mills,” large, poorly-run facilities that churn out hundreds of animals a year, according to Nava’s office. It is patterned on bills passed last year in Virginia, also with a cap of 50, and Louisiana, which imposes a 75-animal limit. The Maryland legislature is also considering a cap, of 25 animals.
AB 242 would make it a felony to be a willing spectator at a dog fight. This bill is a repeat of AB 2281, which Nava carried last session; it died in committee.
“California is the only Western state that doesn’t make it a felony,” Nava said. “What can happen is you become the land of opportunity because it’s only a misdemeanor to observe.” He added: “If you attend a dog fight, it’s not the same as going to a tennis match. What I’ve learned from law enforcement is drugs and guns and dog fighting go hand in hand.”
The third bill, AB 243, would allow a judge to bar a felon convicted of animal cruelty from owning animals for a certain period after their release. This addresses a loophole in state law that allows a judge to prevent someone from possessing or having contact with animals while on probation, but not while they are paroled.
That bill is sponsored by the Los Angeles District Attorneys office. Debbie Knaan, deputy DA and the office’s animal cruelty case coordinator, said it gives law enforcement an important tool in helping make sure animal abusers don’t re-offend. For instance, she said, someone convicted of felony dog fighting would typically be sentenced to three years in prison and only serve half of it.
“The minute you step out the prison gates you can go right to the shelter and pick up another animal on the way home,” Knaan said. She added, “There are some people who really shouldn’t own animals for a lot longer than the one year misdemeanor probation or the three year felony probation.”
She also said a law would help in dealing with “animal hoarding,” a compulsive mental illness recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV). In a well-publicized 2005 case in Virginia, a 58 year-old woman was found with at least 420 cats, many of them diseased. Knaan said that animal hoarding is more common than most people know.
The bill most likely to face significant opposition is AB 241. The American Kennel Club (AKC) and allied groups have consistently opposed efforts to place limits on animal breeding. Over 500 such groups registered their opposition to AB 1634. Since the beginning of this year, the AKC has issued alerts to members opposing bills in nine states, as well as a local mandatory spay/neuter ordinance recently passed by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors.
“The American Kennel Club opposes the concept of breeding permits, breeding bans, and mandatory spay/neuter of purebred dogs,” said AKC spokesperson Lisa Peterson. “The AKC believes that numerical limits do not address the underlying issues of responsible ownership and proper dog care. Instead, we support reasonable and enforceable laws that protect the welfare and health of purebred dogs and do not restrict the rights of breeders and owners who take their responsibilities seriously.”
They also face a rising tide of legislation. Legislatures in 29 states are currently evaluating bills limiting breeding. However, AB 241 is one of the strongest put forth, according to Chris Derose, president of the group Last Chance for Animals.
Derose, who has been involved in animal issue for a quarter century, said his organization carried out undercover filming investigation last year that closed five dog breeding operations in Northern Los Angeles County, one of which had about 500 dogs and puppies on the property. Those cases caused the Posh Puppy pet store in Beverly Hills, famous for selling dogs to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, to close in December. Another high-end pet store which bought from the breeders, Pets of Bel Air, also closed, but will reopen selling only puppies from animal shelters, Derose said.
While he is hoping for stronger limits in the future, Derose said limiting the number of animals is one of the best ways to limit cruelty, because it would change the economics that allow breeders to make big profits by neglecting dogs.
“In all my years of doing this, I’ve never seen anybody operating more than one facility,” Derose said.
Judie Mancuso, President of Social Compassion In Legislation (SCIL), said they have been able to learn from “puppy mill” legislation in other states. For instance, one bill has sought to distinguish between adult and juvenile animals—which opens the door to potentially legalistic defenses, she said.
“When I talk to Animal Control, they say when you go on a property, it’s easier to just count the animals and not debate which one is an adult,” Mancuso said. Mancuso was the external campaign director for AB 1634, the mandatory spay-neuter bill carried by now-termed out Assemblyman Lloyd Levine last session.
Some details of the legislative package are still being worked out—for instance, the standard length of time some convicted of felony animal cruelty could be barred from owning animals. Seven jurisdictions in California current have similar laws, with the period generally ranging from five to fifteen years.
One thing that is clear is that Nava has stepped into one of the more contentious issues in California politics. According to several legislative offices, that bill led to more phone calls, faxes and emails than all other legislation combined during part of 2007.
Nava said that his bill is supported by the Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA. It targets commercial operations that mistreat animals and euthanize female dogs when they can no longer breed, he said.
“That’s no business that I think anybody wants to defend,” Nava said.