Beginning next month, a new law will make it easier for animal rescue groups to recover the costs of caring for animals taken from owners accused of abuse or neglect. The measure expected to get Gov. Peter Shumlin’s signature also allows forfeiture proceedings to start even before any criminal case is heard.
A humane society in the Northeast Kingdom says that's important when animals' lives are at stake.
The Northeast Kingdom’s Elizabeth Brown Humane Society nestles in an out-of-the-way pasture in the rural hamlet of Victory. A red barn is surrounded by fencing installed by a local prison work crew.
Pat Mitchell is the unpaid society president. Along with volunteer labor from family and friends, she takes care of a menagerie rescued from life-threatening situations.
“Well, we have 23 rabbits, eight goats, a llama, two alpacas that are up at my house, a rooster, seven chickens, two miniature horses and Charlie the donkey,” she says as she swings the barn door open for the donkey.
At her house not far away, Mitchell also shelters two horses seized in Lyndonville from Bruce Bona. He’s facing criminal charges for seriously neglecting his livestock. Bona willingly forfeited the animals. If he hadn’t, they would most likely still be allegedly languishing on his property pending the outcome of a criminal case that could take months to resolve. The new law will allow a prosecutor to seize the animals through civil action, under a lower burden of proof than criminal conviction requires. Mitchell says that could save animals’ lives.
“At least the animals won’t have to sit and wait so long,” she explains.
Mitchell is also pleased that it will now be possible for shelters like hers to place a lien on the rescued animals, though that’s no guarantee of restitution.
“It depends on if they have the money to pay it,” she notes.
When Mitchell learns of animals being mistreated — often from a neighbor of the owner — she notifies state agriculture officials.
“Because I can’t do anything unless Department of Ag knows we’re doing it, because it could be an accepted animal practice, which usually, having dead animals isn’t,” Mitchell says.
To investigate, she takes another humane society member to the property. She says these visits can be dicey.
“I’ve learned a few new words and been kicked out of quite a few places, and that just tells me there’s a problem, usually," she says.
The first step Mitchell takes is to try to help the owner see the problem and fix it. If that fails, she calls the sheriff. That begins the process of removing and sheltering the animals, if the owner refuses to give them up. But seizure is a hard judgment call, says David Sleigh. He’s a criminal defense lawyer in St. Johnsbury.
“You’ve seen animal owners claim that their care was adequate and consistent with the historical practices of Vermont farm life,” Sleigh says.
These practices, he says, may not conform to more modern expectations. But humane societies and shelters say they do not take animals on unless they are in dire circumstances. And they look to the new law to make bad owners more responsible for their actions — or inactions.