Guest blog by Penny Conly Ellison
All you needed to do was visit the shelter and walk the rows of kennels and cages and take a glance at the paperwork on each one. Each kennel card provides some information about the animal, his or her name and the “intake date.” As I walked the rows in the greenhouse at the Pennsylvania SPCA in Philadelphia about three years ago looking at those faces, I took particular note of those dates. Some were a week or a month ago but many were a year ago, two years ago, some even three years ago. Three years of living alone in a cage or kennel after what was likely a prolonged period of neglect or abuse. Pennsylvania law allows humane police officers to seize animal victims but that did not give them ownership rights. Shelters simply had to hold them pending the outcome of a criminal trial and potentially appeals to higher courts. Particularly when their abusers were also charged with other more “serious” offenses, that process could drag on for years. During this period in limbo, the animals remained the legal property of their owners. They could not be made available for adoption; they simply had to wait in kennels or cages cared for as well as possible with the incredible cost having to be absorbed by local humane societies and SPCA’s. In large hoarding or fighting cases, both the expense to the shelters and the suffering to the animals was tremendous. In addition, because of the need to hold these animals for such long periods of time and the limited amount of kennel space and funds, shelters would sometimes be forced to turn away animals in need, or, if that was not an option, to euthanize healthy, adoptable animals for lack of space.
The passage of Costs of Care brought a sigh of relief to shelters and, more importantly the chance for a quicker path to freedom for these animals who have already been victimized and/or neglected. With its passage, owners of animals that are the subject of animal cruelty cases can either pay for the costs of caring for them (as they would if their animals had never been seized) or relinquish them, allowing shelters to make them available for adoption. The law is already operating to help humane society police officers gain voluntary surrenders of animals for owners who, when told about the law, are unwilling to pay the costs of medical care, housing and feeding of their animals. In those cases where owners wish to retain ownership (in the event they are acquitted or the court does not order surrender), the shelters must be paid the costs of care as they are incurred. This allows them to use their limited resources to care for homeless animals.
In addition, the costs of care law eliminates the need for prosecutors to offer plea deals in cruelty cases just to get a voluntary surrender of the animals. Previously, a prosecutor’s desire to see justice served had to be weighed against the likelihood that taking the case to trial was sentencing the animal victim(s) to many months or years of confinement in a shelter awaiting an uncertain future.
Before costs of care, the financial burdens of caring for animal victims had been devastating to local SPCA’s and humane societies, making the decision to seize animals a very difficult one because the financial burden could potentially break the bank for the nonprofit shelters charged with enforcing the cruelty laws. I am so happy to say they no longer have to make the choice between enforcing the cruelty laws and surviving to help stray animals. The passage of costs of care is truly the biggest step forward for animals in Pennsylvania in a very long time and, hopefully, a sign that Pennsylvania is ready to lead on animal protection issues.
Penny Conly Ellison is Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and has taught a course in Animal Law and Ethics since 2006. She is a member of the board of the Pennsylvania SPCA and Executive Director of The Hand2Paw Foundation, a nonprofit that enables homeless youth to volunteer in Philadelphia’s animal shelters.