Proposed city registry would leash animal abusers

If some members of the City Council have their way, New York City will become the fourth and largest place in the country to create a registry listing animal abusers, under a measure that would ban those convicted of animal cruelty from owning or adopting pets.

A dog whose abuse was caught on a surveillance camera this week recovers from the attack. Under a proposed City Council bill, anyone convicted of animal cruelty would have to register with the city’s Department of Health. Photo: NYPD

On Wednesday, Peter Vallone Jr. of Astoria, introduced a bill establishing the registry, with the support of fellow members Vincent Gentile of Brooklyn and Queens colleague Elizabeth Crowley of Queens. Now in the Council’s Committee on Health, the measure would require New Yorkers convicted of animal abuse or cruelty to register to a city database. Vallone said he got the idea from a law the Suffolk County legislature passed in 2010 after a grisly spree of animal murders in the county.

“We just had, in my district, a thug who threw a dog out the window and killed it,” said Vallone in an interview. “And we saw on TV two nights ago the punk in the elevator kicking his dog.

“If I had a pet in a building, I’d like to know whether someone on my floor has been convicted of stealing or abusing a pet,” Vallone added.

Any New York City resident with a criminal conviction for “an animal abuse crime” – including animal fighting, malnourishment, aggravated cruelty or abandonment – would be required under the proposed law to register with the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Failing to report or owning an animal while on the registry would carry a hefty price tag: a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to a year in prison. Animal shelters would be required to consult the registry before handing over animals to adopters, and workers or volunteers who provide pets to known abusers would also be subject to the penalties.

Unlike New York State’s sex offender registry, the proposed city-run animal abuse database would not be posted publicly by a government agency on the internet; the city would only be obligated to share the information with law enforcement agencies, humane societies, pet stores and animal shelters. But Vallone notes that there is “absolutely no prohibition from any private group making this public” and that he intends to have third parties post the information. Registrants would remain on the list for five years after their first offense and stay on for another 10 years for any subsequent offense.

The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the agency charged with developing and maintaining the database, was not available for comment.

So far three counties in the country, all in New York State, have animal registry laws on the books; Suffolk approved its registry in 2010, followed by Rockland and Albany in 2011. But none of the three counties has had any registrants because no one has been convicted of animal abuse since the laws took effect.

“They happen in spurts,” said Shawn Spring, Senior Investigator at the Albany County’s Sheriff’s office, which oversees the program for the area. “You’ll have two or three of them and then you won’t have another for a year or so. So we’re just waiting.”

Elsewhere in the country, proposals for animal abuse registries have stalled. Earlier this year, Colorado lawmakers voted down a bill after opponents raised questions about registries’ effectiveness in preventing animal abuse and privacy concerns for registrants.

“It opened people up to harassment by animal rights supporters,” said Linda Hart, state legislative liaison for the Colorado Federation of Dog Clubs, a group that represents show dog communities and pure-bred dog owners across the state, and which opposed the Colorado bill.

“Any time anyone shows up in the media with animal abuse allegations against them, they end up getting death threats. And if you put these pictures and addresses of people on a registry, they are going to get harassed.”

Not all animal rights advocates are convinced that registries are effective deterrents of abuse. “You do want to be careful because you don’t want these low-risk offenders ending up on a registry that in the end that doesn’t help the animals. It doesn’t help anyone,” said Brian Shapiro, New York State director of the United States Humane Society. He argues that most offenders are actually owners that neglect or hoard pets, instead of high-profile cruelty cases often highlighted in the media. A better path, he suggests, would be to strengthen state animal cruelty laws and provide mental health services to problem owners to ulimately reduce recidivism.

Currently nine state legislatures, including New York’s, are considering registry bills, according to animal rights activists. The New York State Senate passed its version in mid-June with bi-partisan support; an Assembly bill, sponsored by Assembly member James Tedisco of Schenectady, now awaits action in the Agriculture committee.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whose support is crucial to advance legislation in the city, said in a press conference shortly before Vallone’s bill was introduced that she had not seen it and therefore could not comment.

In the meantime, animal rights advocates nationally are paying close attention what happens next at New York’s City Hall.

“We are looking forward to working with Council Member Vallone’s office. If this gets passed in New York City, it will be the largest jurisdiction in the nation with an animal abusers registry and that would be truly historic,” said Lisa Franzetta, a spokesperson for the Bay Area-based Animal League Defense Fund, which worked with Suffolk county legislators on their bill. She said her group looks forward to working with Councilmember Vallone’s office.

“It’s clearly a good idea whose time has come,” she said.

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