By Samantha J. Gross
Boston University Statehouse Program
This article was originally published in the Lowell Sun.
BOSTON — Four years after a Quincy man was charged with beating, burning, starving, stabbing and slicing his 2-year-old pit bull the Massachusetts Senate unanimously voted to toughen animal cruelty laws tightened immediately after the “Puppy Doe” case.
The updated Protecting Animal Welfare and Society Act, nicknamed PAWS II, came up for debate as Radoslaw Czerkawski, a 36-year-old Polish national who was living in the United States illegally, stands trial in Norfolk Superior Court.
In the original PAWS bill filed by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, of Gloucester, a task force was formed to review the state’s animal welfare laws and create a registry of people convicted of crimes against animals. PAWS II now uses a report crafted by that task force to put ideas into action.
The Senate Thursday refocused its attention on the commonwealth’s furriest residents, unanimously voting to pass PAWS II, and a new “Act to Protect Puppies and Kittens” (S 1155), sponsored by Senate Ways and Means Chair Karen Spilka of Ashland and Tarr.
The proposed new law will outlaw the sales of cats or dogs younger than eight weeks, remedy sales of sick dogs and cats and prohibit pet shops from selling puppies and kittens from breeders that violate the Animal Welfare Act. Also passed were amendments to the bill that outlaws inhumane commercial sales of cats and dogs and increases the penalty for pet hit-and-runs.
Spilka, a former small-scale breeder herself, said by passing this bill, legislators will make sure that Massachusetts does not host any more “bad breeders.” She said she’s received calls in the last six months from constituents concerned that puppies they bought were ill, requiring thousands of dollars in veterinary fees.
“[The bill] ensures consumers won’t be forced to make the difficult choice of giving an animal up, putting it down or exorbitant medical bills,” she said.
Kara Holmquist, MSPCA’s director of advocacy, said this bill is important because most people don’t want more options that were previously available under law, which is to return the animal and get their money back.
Jill O’Connell, the executive director of the Lowell Humane Society said protecting puppies and kittens is important because of young animals’ fragile health and development.
“We try to keep puppies in foster homes until they are older than 10 weeks,” she said. “They learn things from their moms that they can’t learn from people. Getting nursing from their moms benefit them health-wise for the rest of their lives, as well.”
Despite a unanimous vote in support of the bill, amendments stirred debate on the Senate floor. Senators eventually adopted one amendment dealing with juvenile offenders on a 19-17 vote after an hour-long private meeting in Senate President Harriette Chandler’s office.
The PAWS II bill uses the report produced by the PAWS-created task force to outlaw acts like drowning animals. The bill also requires the Department of Children and Families and Elder Services to report suspected animal abuse, while requiring animal control officers to report child and elder abuse in return. One contentious section of the bill also allows the courts the option to punish convicted animal abusers aged 14 to 17 with adult sentences.
Holmquist has been working with lawmakers and stakeholders for years on creating legislation to protect animals and address some of the major problems animal face in the commonwealth. She said the cross-reporting addressed in the bill “recognizes that animal abuse and violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”
“Where one happens, so does another and it’s important to recognize,” she said.
The bill also deals with sexual abuse toward animals, prohibiting such activity as well as the distribution of images and forcing children into sexual acts with animals.
“We haven’t had an adequate statute on the books,” Holmquist said. “People don’t like to talk about it this stuff, but it happens.”
O’Connell said she is impressed with the way the state has handled animal-related issues in the present and in the past, including the 2013 pit bull abuse case, nicknamed “Puppy Doe.”
“Massachusetts is ahead of the curve as far as the rest of the country goes,” she said. “The state looks for new ways to protect animals whether it be farm animals or pets.”
Last May, two dozen people who had plots on a tenant farm in Westport faced criminal charges after an investigation by the state attorney general’s office found what authorities called the largest animal cruelty case in New England history. Some 1,400 animals including dogs, goats, horses and cows were found to be living in overcrowded conditions without food or water.
Massachusetts Animal Coalition President Anne Lindsay echoed O’Connell’s sentiments, and added that the state could always to more.
Lindsay said the bill “gives animals a voice,” something she thinks is important to those who work in animal welfare.
“These little animals are pawns in a bigger system and their needs haven’t been considered at a high level,” she said. “That all bothers anyone in animal welfare.”
She added that the bill is a “no brainer,” and that breeders or shelters with prior animal abuse violations should be banned from continuing their work. Puppies and kittens must develop immune systems and go through “imprinting” or developmental stages with their mothers and littermates, so it’s important that the law protect these vulnerable animals.
“We’re in a society where the awareness of animals is so much higher than it once was,” she said. “It’s just obvious.”
When she travels to conferences across the country, Lindsay said “everyone is looking to New England” as an example for animal care. However, she said there are still more improvements to be made.
“We have animal hoarding, shelters that don’t comply with best practices, we have people who are leaving animals in hot cars in the summer,” she said. “There have been improvements, but we need to keep making more improvements. We shouldn’t rest on our laurels.”
Sen. Eileen Donoghue, who owns a dog herself, said she personally “knows the importance of protecting vulnerable animals.”
“I am pleased to see the Senate take action to stop abuses related to puppies and kittens,” said the Lowell Democrat.