August 19, 2013
The Cost of Care
Bonding and forfeiture laws force abusers to surrender their animals or pay for their care.
by James Hettinger
To get to the malamutes, rescuers from The HSUS and local agencies drove up a long, winding dirt road in the mountains of Montana two years ago. When they arrived, they were greeted by howls from the dogs, who were starving for attention as well as nourishment. Living in trash-strewn pens with no food and buckets of moldy, black water, the dogs were emaciated under their matted fur.
The case ultimately had a positive outcome. Authorities shuttered the puppy mill, and the dogs went to a temporary shelter operated by the Lewis and Clark Humane Society. The puppy mill owner, convicted of 91 counts of animal cruelty, is serving a five-year prison term.
The cost of care, over 13 months, for 161 malamutes rescued from a Montana puppy mill.
But success came at a steep price. Because Montana lacked a strong bonding law to require the owner to cover the cost of caring for the animals until the conclusion of his trial, The HSUS stepped in to foot the bill—more than $602,000.
That cost was driven by the number of animals and the length of their stay in the temporary shelter. The 161 seized dogs included several who were pregnant; after their puppies were born, the case involved more than 200 dogs. The legal case dragged on for more than 13 months before the dogs were released to be rehomed—typical for court proceedings, says Adam Parascandola, HSUS director of cruelty response.
Animal welfare advocates often come up against this issue when taking on a large-scale cruelty case. Without a good bonding law, the expense of conducting a major seizure can give perpetrators a bargaining chip for reduced charges; they know that a humane group will often settle for a lighter charge in order to gain custody of the animals so they can be placed in new homes more quickly.
The cost of care, over 10 months, for 130 rescued Arabian horses.
The expense can be backbreaking for smaller organizations and hugely challenging even for large municipalities. And there are consequences for the animals, who can linger in limbo for months. In some cases, the lack of a good law can render other cruelty laws toothless because the cases aren’t brought: Organizations that have been through a large-scale cruelty prosecution are often loath to intervene again. The expense of one big cruelty case can gut their budgets for the rest of their vital day-to-day work for animals.
To address the problem, The HSUS pushes for bonding laws as well as civil forfeiture laws, which help agencies quickly gain ownership of animals seized from unfit owners. Animal owners should pay their fair share for the problems they create, says John Goodwin, HSUS director of animal cruelty policy, noting that it’s usually county governments (and ultimately taxpayers) that pay when animals are seized and placed in municipal shelters.
In states with bonding laws, courts can order the owner/criminal defendant to front the money for animal care. If the defendant refuses, he loses custody of the animals, who can then quickly be put up for adoption, rather than languishing in cages.
The cost of care, over 14 months, for 13 dogs seized from a dogfighting operation.
In states without bonding laws, The HSUS has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to care for seized animals. “Rather than have a charity’s money be used for these responsibilities,” Goodwin says, “we’d prefer to see the burden be placed on the criminal defendant that put these animals in this situation in the first place.”
Bonding and civil forfeiture laws have grown more popular in recent years, and about two-thirds of states now have a bonding law, a civil forfeiture law, or both. This July in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett signed another bonding bill. Goodwin would like to see that trend continue. “We all need to be getting political, talking to our state legislators, and working together to get the right laws in place.”