Cruelty to animals, it is said, is often a precursor to graver crimes. So would there not be some usefulness to a registry of individuals convicted of felony animal abuse? Legislators in California want the Golden State to be the first to establish such a record — just as California was the first in the nation to create a registry of sex offenders.
The goal of the registry, which would list crimes against both pets and farm animals, is to make it easier for shelters and animal-adoption groups to identify people who shouldn't be allowed access to animals. It would also be a boon to law enforcement because animal abuse, the bill's authors' say, often escalates to violence against people. Abuses covered in the bill would include the malicious and intentional maiming, mutilation, torture, wounding or killing of a living animal. It would also target pet hoarders and operators of animal-fighting rings (such as dog-baiting and cockfighting) who have felony convictions.
"We think California is primed for this kind of a bill," says state senate majority leader Dean Florez, who introduced the bill in late February. "We've progressed to the point where we as a legislature are moving in a direction of this bill, which is ultimately, How do we in essence prevent repeat offenses when it comes to cruelty to animals in the state of California?" It is an issue that, Florez says, Californians care for deeply. About 60% of California residents own pets, he says; add in farm animals, and 80% of the population has some kind of ownership of animals.
The bill's biggest stumbling block may be the funding it would require. Created with the assistance of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the bill would raise the approximately $500,000 to $1 million necessary for its launch through a 2- or 3-cent tax per pound of pet food, says Florez, a Democrat who is chairman of the Food and Agriculture Committee. He estimated that after it's launch, the project could cost between $300,000 to $400,000 a year to maintain. Yet even that relatively small amount has some organizations, including a national pet-product trade group and even the Humane Society, raising concerns. Jennifer Fearing, California senior state director and chief economist for the U.S. Humane Society, supports the measure's aims but worries about whether it can get passed. Says Fearing: "I would be shocked if this legislature is prepared to enact any tax this year, much less one levied on pet owners who are struggling to care for their animals, when many of them are dropping them off at shelters."
Ed Rod, vice president of government affairs for the American Pet Products Association, says the proposal is inherently inequitable."You're looking at pet owners paying for something that's really going to benefit everyone," says Rod. "And animal abuse certainly affects pets, but it also affects agricultural animals as well, and in this case I don't believe there is any provision to impose a fee on livestock feed. The goal we support, certainly, but we think this is kind of a blunt instrument to reach that goal."
Even if those convicted of animal-abuse felonies were charged a fee, however, that may not be enough to cover the cost of the registry, since only a small percentage of animal-abuse cases result in felony charges, according to Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles. "The bottom line is that there aren't a lot of felony convictions for animal abuse in the state of California," says Bernstein. The proposal also puts an added burden on local police — operating at a time of state funding cuts — by requiring them to gather registry information on convicted felons and transfer the information to the Department of Justice within three days of collection.
Despite the obstacles, Florez expects to push the legislation as far as it can go. Could he get the two-thirds majority required to turn the bill into law — particularly from the Republican minority that pledged not to raise taxes? "In this case," he says, "the issue is simple. Do Republican members ... really want to be seen on the side of animal abuse? I don't think they do."