TRENTON – People accused of animal cruelty could have to pay a bond to cover the costs a shelter incurs caring for animals taken into custody while a criminal case is pending, under a bill endorsed by an Assembly committee Monday.

It’s unclear if the bill – S4058/A6099 – will be passed by the Senate and Assembly at their final meetings of the two-year legislative session next Monday. Opponents of the plan are advocating for lawmakers to delay a final vote and instead make revisions to narrow down the plan next session.

The bill’s proponents say the bill has been worked on for three years and should no longer wait.

More than 35 states have similar laws in place now, making New Jersey an outlier, said Brian Hackett, legislative affairs manager for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. He said that nationally, ‘cost-of-care’ laws are used in large-scale animal cruelty cases, such as dogfighting and mass hoarding, in which shelters providing care while the case unfolds could be bankrupted.

“This isn’t a situation of someone doesn’t have a proper doghouse and an animal is seized, or my grandmother has a few cats she’s not able to take care of properly,” Hackett said.

'Aunt Tillie’s little chihuahua'

Emily Hovermale of St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center said such a law is long overdue and would create a process for shelters to recoup costs of caring for animals who’ve been subject to abuse.

“Depending on the number and species of animals involved, these costs can range from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, all of these expenses falling to animal care agencies like ours with potentially devastating financial consequences,” Hovermale said.

Terri Peifer, an activist with Companion Animal Advocacy NJ, said it’s uncommon for animals to be taken away without a person being given an opportunity to change. She said animal seizures are not taken lightly by police unless a situation is horrific and the animals are in danger.

“Truth be told, law enforcement usually errs on the side of the owners and resists seizing people’s animals,” Peifer said. “So, Aunt Tillie’s little chihuahua is not going to get seized. There’s a process.”

Seized animals could be killed

But the bill doesn’t say the proposed law couldn’t be used in smaller situations. Steve Clegg, a shelter reform advocate, said lawmakers should be cautious.

“Any time you allow the government to take your property and charge you up front or lose your property is wrong,” Clegg said. “And it doesn’t become any less wrong because we’re talking about defenseless animals.”

Mike Fry, a Minnesota-based animal shelter consultant, said the bill – like an ordinance nullified in Louisville, Kentucky – violates the Constitution by requiring people accused of something to pay up front to maintain their property before any due process.

The bill says a shelter or pound could provide care to improve an animal's physical or psychological well-being or transfer the animal to an animal rescue facility or foster home. If a veterinarian determines the animal is in intractable and extreme pain and beyond any reasonable hope of recovery, the animal could be euthanized.

“These proposed changes will, without a doubt, result in some pets being taken away from families and then killed before the court system ultimately finds those families not guilty,” Fry said.

It’s possible the payments that would need to be made could be thousands of dollars, perhaps exceeding $10,000. If a person was later found not guilty of the animal cruelty charge, that would be returned, but costs for reasonable veterinary care would be subtracted.

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Blogger and animal welfare activist Alan Rosenberg said shelters use animal abuse cases to raise tons of money that goes into salaries for administrators – and that he worries what’ll happen to animals seized under the proposed law once that fundraising well runs dry.

“If they’re cute, they’re going to adopt those animals at a high fee,” Rosenberg said. “If they’re not cute or require some work, they’re going to kill those animals to save money.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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