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Safe Haven-Maine shelters pets under domestic violence protection
Mandatory abuse reporting could sever clients and also the ability to continue contact with the owner.
AUGUSTA, MAINE — Legislative moves expanding domestic violence laws to protect pets are spreading in New England.
Getting to know new patients
Last month, Maine enacted the nation's first protection order to include pets of owners leaving abusive relationships. Vermont lawmakers followed with a similar statute tied to a proposed anti-stalking initiative. The animal abuse-domestic violence link can be defined statistically, experts say. Seventy-one percent of women in domestic abuse shelters have had a pet harmed by their abusers; another 25 percent reported they didn't leave abusive situations sooner because of a pet, says attorney Anne Jordan, who drafted Maine's legislation.
Such pet protective measures have caught the veterinary profession's attention. While the initiatives advance animal safety, experts predict the addition of pets in human-aimed laws draws unintended consequences that include raising the value of animals and pressuring increased demands to report suspected animal abuse cases.
"Historically pets have no standing in court; they're property," says Jim Wilson, DVM, JD, owner of Priority Veterinary Management Consultants in Yardley, Pa. "Now all of the sudden they're saying the pet has sufficient interests of its own because of its bond to the family, enough to rise it to the level of allowing a court to consider the interests of this property.
"There's no court order protecting a car or a home. This has far-reaching implications; I would say it's a huge change in pet status under the law."
Wilson, who's tracked national pressure to up the status of animals to more than property in lawsuits alleging malpractice and wrongful death, claims the move isn't surprising. Yet he points out that the decision addresses two critical issues: new rights for the court to consider the well-being of property and calls to more clearly define what constitutes a pet.
Dr. Jim Wilson
"How can you oppose this?" Wilson asks. "This is a small gain that almost no one can complain about."
On the radar
It's also a hot issue, hitting the media circuit and gaining support and publicity from the Humane Society of the United States. Last month, the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) Executive Board voted against establishing a Task Force on Domestic Abuse and Violence, advanced by the Committee on the Human-Animal Bond. While the proposal has merit, AVMA officials say, implementation of the group's animal welfare division has the organization focused elsewhere. "I think our board simply wanted to allow some time for the already-approved new initiatives to take effect and see where everything fits into the grand scheme of things before they allocated resources to another group/project," says Dr. Gail Golab, AVMA assistant director of communications.
In the meantime, state lawmakers aren't waiting for AVMA to weigh in on developing protection measures for pets used by abusers to gain power or control over domestic violence victims. Signed by Gov. John Baldacci, Maine's legislative mandate amends the state's domestic relations laws by providing relief from abuse and allowing judges to write protection orders to shield companion animals. The law calls for civil penalties that include fines and jail time for those who violate protection directives.
The proposal came from judicial requests, says Dr. Christine Fraser, animal welfare veterinarian for the Maine Animal Welfare Program in the state's Department of Agriculture. "They requested an avenue to protect the animals as well as the people," she says.
Whether or not the increased attention will translate to amplified expectations for veterinarians to report suspected abuse remains to be seen. Maine and Vermont offer legal immunity to practitioners choosing to report suspected abuse cases witnessed in the practice, although both systems are voluntary.
But other states enforce mandatory reporting by practitioners, which can spur cross-reporting among other public agencies. California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio and Tennessee encourage the exchange of violence cases among law enforcement, domestic violence, child protection and animal control agencies.
In Vermont, such reports could lead to convictions carrying three years in prison and $25,000 fines for violators. The measure, passed at presstime by a Senate committee, is part of a broader bill that if enacted would allow judges to issue protective orders against suspected stalkers.
While most veterinary abuse encounters deal with animal hoarding and neglect, suspicions of violence bear a sensitive element, says Bill Bell, Maine Veterinary Medical Association's executive director. The group is against implementing mandatory reporting procedures.
"Veterinarians have felt that if required by law to report questionable abuse cases, they've not only lost a client but the opportunity to have continued contact with the owner," he says. "This is a gray area that we hope doesn't change in regard to its voluntary status. Maine vets are doing an excellent job reporting on a voluntary basis."