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Reviewed for accuracy on May 15, 2019, by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM

Some states are doing better than others at protecting animals from abuse and neglect. These local governments have laws and regulations in place that keep the animals that reside within their jurisdictions safe from harm.

Every year, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) releases an annual report dictating where states rank in terms of their animal protection laws.

Here’s some insight on how rankings are determined, the ways that animal protection laws are evolving and which states have the best track record when it comes to protecting animals.

How ALDF State Rankings Work

According to Kathleen Wood, a criminal justice program fellow with ALDF, there are 19 specific animal protection measures they use to figure out where states rank on the list.

Wood explains that the categories range from “substantive protections, which address whether certain conduct constitutes a crime—such as neglect, abuse and animal fighting” to “procedural provisions, which lay out what tools law enforcement and prosecutors have to intervene in cruelty situations, like under what circumstances an animal may be seized or forfeited.”

These categories are also evolving to meet the changing needs and expectations when it comes to animal rights. Wood reveals that in 2019, the ALDF added five new categories to their rankings:

  • The legal definition of “animal.” This category looks at how inclusively the state is defining the term “animal” in their cruelty code; for example, many states specifically exclude fish from their definition.

  • Courtroom Animal Advocate Program: Also referred to as CAAPS, these are programs like Desmond’s Law in Connecticut, which allow a third party to be present in the courtroom to advocate for the interests of the animal.

  • Hot cars: This looks at which states criminalize leaving animals in vehicles under certain circumstances and who has the authority to remove an animal from a vehicle.

  • Civil Nuisance Abatement: This statute declares animal abuse as an abatable nuisance, which then gives ordinary citizens the power to sue abusers to abate that nuisance.

  • Breed Specific Legislation: This considers the states that prohibit their cities and counties from enacting breed-specific ordinances, which place undue restrictions on animals and their guardians solely on the basis of dog breed.

2018’s Top States for Effective Animal Protection Laws

ALDF’s top five states for animal protection laws in 2018 are:

  • Illinois

  • Oregon

  • Maine

  • Colorado

  • Massachusetts

The results of the survey change each year; however, the ALDF team has noticed a pattern in which states are consistently performing ahead of the curve. “Illinois and Oregon have consistently been in our top five for all the years we’ve been doing this,” says Wood.

Wood also notes that Colorado is new to the top five, and that came about based on the new ranking system that was put in place this year. “They didn’t pass a lot of laws, but they are now getting credit for things that they’ve been doing all along,” she explains.

According to Wood, the bottom five states have also stayed fairly consistent year after year.

Why Do These States Have the Best Animal Protection Laws?

The top five states all have thorough laws for protecting animals. These laws set standards for care, implement punishments and provisions, and increase penalties for animal cruelty. What sets them apart from the rest of the US is the extent to which their laws protect animals.

According to Wood, all of the current top five states have felony provisions for cruelty, neglect and animal fighting. They all also have increased penalties for repeat abusers or animal hoarders.

Illinois, Maine, Colorado and Massachusetts have felony provisions for abandonment, while Illinois, Oregon and Massachusetts have felony provisions for sexual assault of an animal.

The top four states—Illinois, Oregon, Maine and Colorado—have “adequate definitions/standards of basic care,” which means “you must provide your animal with adequate food, water, shelter and veterinary care,” says Wood. They also have legal provisions for mental health evaluations/counseling for convicted offenders.

What also makes some of these states the best for animal protection laws is that four of them—Illinois, Oregon, Maine and Massachusetts—have laws that allow animal possession bans for a person who has been convicted of animal cruelty. Woods explains, “they are not permitted to own any animal for usually five years for a misdemeanor, and 10-15 for a felony.”

Plus, each of these states have hot car laws in place that enable anyone to rescue an animal, whether it’s a law enforcement officer or a civilian, when an animal is trapped in a hot car.

There’s Always Room to Improve Laws Protecting Animals

Though these states have some thorough laws that protect animals, the ALDF would like to see them implement additional provisions.

For instance, Wood notes that none of the top-performing states have in-court animal advocate programs. And only Illinois and Oregon have increased penalties when the abuse is committed in the presence of a minor, which Wood says has been showing to have damaging psychological effects on children who witness such acts.

The team would also like to see more of a push towards mandatory reporting of cruelty by veterinarians in all of the states. “Because the owner is the one that is often abusing the animal, the veterinarian is often the only person who sees the signs of animal cruelty and has the knowledge to recognize those signs. So, it’s really important to empower them to report that to law enforcement when they see it,” says Wood.

They are also advocating for states to pass animal protection laws that provide mental health evaluations and counseling for people convicted of animal cruelty laws. “I think there are only 18 states that have provisions for mental health right now. And that would be an important thing to address to prevent reoffenders,” says Wood.

There are also still some states that don’t criminalize the sexual assault of animals, and about half the states that do criminalize it have extremely vague laws, which are really difficult to enforce. “We’d like to see those better lined up and brought into the 21st century,” Wood adds.

The Importance of Strong Animal Protection Laws

Since pets are valued as family members, the stakes are higher for effective animal protection legislation, says Ledy VanKavage, senior legislative attorney with Best Friends Animal Society. “I think these laws reflect a societal shift in our relationship with companion animals.”

Laurie Hood, founder and president of Alaqua Animal Refuge, says that what these top-performing states are doing is “setting the example for where we need to be as a nation in animal protection laws.”

Hood adds that seeing people actually be penalized for crimes against animals goes a long way in deterring people from committing acts of animal abuse or neglect in the first place.

“I think people take note that those actions will no longer be tolerated. This also helps to eliminate repeat offenders, as their behavior usually continues if no legal action is taken, especially if they are banned from owning animals in the future,” Hood says.

“Animal abuse is about violence. We all want safe and humane communities for people and pets,” VanKavage says.

By: Nicole Pajer

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