The gruesome death of a miniature poodle triggered the latest in a growing number of Arizona animal protection laws. And well-organized activists say the list is far from complete.
Sally Andrade had her beloved poodle, Fabian, on a leash in her Glendale driveway when a neighbor’s loose pit bull attacked and killed the pet in 2009.
After she learned the dog’s owner couldn’t be held liable for Fabian’s death, Andrade and her husband, Richard, launched a grief-inspired crusade to change things. Their push led to passage in 2011 of House Bill 2137, the Aggressive Dog Owner Responsibility or Fabian’s Law, and is fueling the couple’s continuing fight against animal cruelty.
Fabian’s Law subjects owners to criminal misdemeanor charges if they fail to confine and control dogs with a history of aggressive behavior. The offense can be prosecuted as a felony if the owner intentionally causes the dog to inflict injuries or knows the dog is aggressive and it injures a human or animal while at large.
Once rare, pet-centered legislative campaigns like the one launched by the Andrades are now familiar chapters in a growing nationwide push for local regulations that punish negligent or abusive human caretakers. Activists and lawmakers say Arizona will likely see more animal protection bills in coming sessions.
“Thirty years ago, nobody cared,” said Kari Nienstedt, Arizona director for The Humane Society of the United States. Until recently, even the most severe cases of neglect or abuse were considered criminal misdemeanors. Now some are felonies and suspects are jailed.
“Our society is evolving, thinking more about animals in general,” Nienstedt said. “And research is clear — people who neglect and intentionally inflict abuse on animals are equally abusive to humans.”
Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, amended HB2137 in response to the Andrades’ campaign. He had introduced it as an animal sterilization bill that lifts a surgical requirement on spaying and neutering and allows clinical trials on non-surgical sterilization products. Chabin said the last-minute amendment had backing from the Humane Society and Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and no opposition. After the bill was signed into law, Chabin received the Human Society’s annual legislative award.
The lawmaker expects more bill requests from animal advocacy groups in the upcoming session.
“I think without a doubt they will bring more issues for the Legislature to address. They’re a strong, focused constituency in virtually every community in the state. They have ideas on legislation and they’re going to find sympathetic ears,” Chabin said.
Records show that the national and local Humane Society are registered Arizona lobbyists. The national group has contributed to political campaigns, including more than $350,000 in 2010 to defeat Proposition 109, which asked voters to approve adding the “right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife lawfully” to the Arizona Constitution.
Several other groups including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) track animal-cruelty-related bills nationwide.
Nienstedt said the national Humane Society is preparing to seek more changes to Arizona’s animal-cruelty laws. One would subject owners to felony prosecution if they fail to get necessary veterinary attention for suffering pets in extreme cases of medical neglect. Under current state law, all levels of animal medical neglect are misdemeanors. She cited a case brought to the organization’s attention where a dog’s leg was a rotting, bloody stump but the owner failed to get the animal medical attention. “The owner was negligent and causing the animal tremendous suffering,” Nienstedt said. “Vet bills can get pretty high, but that’s no excuse for letting an animal suffer.”
Another under discussion is adding details in a law that requires owners to provide their pets with food, water and shelter. “We are looking at cruel confinement. Currently you can let a dog live in a small pet carrier and under state law that’s OK so long as it has food and water,” Nienstedt said. “But that’s not good for the dog.”
Activists also may seek wording changes in food and water law to ensure animals have clean water and palatable food. “We want to make sure our laws are in line with societal values,” Nienstedt said.
In the past when animal rights groups advocated changes in the treatment of farm animals, agriculture groups spoke in opposition. But Chabin said he has heard no negative comments about increasing protections for pets.
One of the biggest challenges for criminal animal cruelty crackdowns is getting people to report suspected activity to the right agency, Nienstedt said. “They call vets or the Human Society. I always tell people to call their local law enforcement agency; animal cruelty is a crime.”
Two Arizona cities — Phoenix and Scottsdale — contract with the Arizona Humane Society to handle municipal animal cruelty complaints and shelter abused or abandoned pets. In most other communities, police departments take those complaints. Maricopa County Animal Care and Control does not investigate animal cruelty, but Pima County Animal Care and Control does.
The high-profile animal cruelty crackdown of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is evidence that public awareness generates criminal complaints.
The Sheriff’s Office has a cruelty hot line and a dedicated Animal Cruelty Investigations Unit. Spokeswoman Lisa Allen said the agency has received 439 calls reporting animal abuse so far this year. Those calls led to 211 animal seizures, 61 arrests, 28 felony charges and 133 misdemeanor cases. The office refers callers who live in incorporated areas to their municipal law enforcement agency, said Sgt. Brandon Jones, but the specialized unit responds to all serious cases of animal cruelty or abuse within the county.
Phoenix formed an Animal Cruelty Task Force in July to launch a public awareness campaign, enhance police enforcement and to propose new laws. Nienstedt is a member.
Tucson has had a similar task force for a decade, said Deputy Pima County Attorney Kathleen Mayer, who specializes in animal cruelty cases. She said many of the cases that come to her office are associated with domestic violence, supporting the theory that violence against animals is linked to violence against humans. One of the first cases she prosecuted was a domestic violence case where the batterer slit the throat of his girlfriend’s dog.
Mayer estimates her office prosecutes about 20 animal cruelty cases a month, which includes those investigated by the Tucson Police Department and the county’s Animal Care and Control Department.
Most come from allegations of neglect and failure to provide veterinary care. She did not have information on how many, if any, were violations of Fabian’s Law.
In Phoenix Municipal Court, 57 animal cruelty charges were filed against 14 defendants in fiscal 2011-12, which ended July 1, said staff attorney Loren Braud. Three charges have been filed under Fabian’s Law.
Bretta Nelson, spokeswoman for the Arizona Humane Society, said her organization has conducted 7,360 animal cruelty investigations statewide since November 2011. Most of them were for abandonment and animals left with no water or shelter.
Even the private legal community has embraced animal law as a specialty. “When I started law school in the 1970s, no one ever heard of animal law,” said Tucson attorney Jeffrey Plackman, who has represented both sides in animal abuse cases. “Now you can graduate with a Juris doctorate with a focus on animal law.”
A self-proclaimed animal lover, Blackman said he will not take clients accused of extreme cruelty. There can be extenuating circumstances when a pet causes injuries, he said, noting a dog that hurts a person or another dog may be trying to play — not attack.
Chabin said he felt comfortable supporting Fabian’s Law because it specifies that an animal must have a history of aggression before the owner could be criminally prosecuted.
Since Fabian’s violent death, Sally and Richard Andrade have visited families whose human members or pets were hurt by aggressive dogs and have expanded their activism to push for new laws against animal cruelty. “State laws are still too weak and need to be strengthened,” Sally Andrade said.
Fabian’s law provisions
In addition to Fabian’s Law and according to Arizona Revised Statutes 13-2910, it’s criminal animal cruelty to “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly”:
• Subject any animal to cruel neglect or abandonment.
• Fail to provide medical attention to prevent suffering.
• Inflict physical injury or “cruel mistreatment.”
• Kill an animal without legal privilege or consent of the owner.
• Leave an animal unattended and confined in a motor vehicle when physical injury or death is likely.
Violations are considered misdemeanors unless the cruel neglect or mistreatment results in serious injury or death to the animal or the offenses are committed against a working service animal, at which time they may be prosecuted as felonies.