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McCallum: Animal Rescue

Eleven neglected animals were seized from a St. Johnsbury property where nineteen others died. Three emaciated horses were discovered in a filthy barn, nearly blind and unable to walk. Two dogs were left to freeze when their owner abandoned them in subzero weather. These are disturbing images with a common theme - animal cruelty in Vermont .

And while the Green Mountain State has a reputation for treating its critters humanely, the latest Animal Legal Defense Fund ranking of fifty states on their animal protection laws puts us at a middling twenty-fifth place. One of the report’s ranking criteria is court calendar priority when animals are in custody following seizure in cruelty cases. As in many other states, when cruelty investigations are launched as a result of animal seizures, Vermont justice is not always swift.

Vermont really has no state chapter of the ASPCA or a central authority responsible for investigating cruelty cases. It falls instead to a patchwork of police agencies, towns, shelters, volunteer humane agents and nonprofit rescue organizations. And it’s the underfunded shelters and rescue groups that usually pick up the tab for feeding, housing and providing medical care for rescued animals while they are held as evidence during lengthy criminal investigations.

In 2012, a Northeast Kingdom rescue group sheltered six starving draft horses after a seizure and the hefty costs in the tens of thousands pushed the organization to its financial edge. That same year, three horses seized in an abuse case in Mendon spent nine months living in legal limbo at a nonprofit horse rescue facility in North Clarendon, where their care cost more than $6,000 and no restitution was able to be collected. And the two dogs saved from perishing in the cold early this January were taken in by a humane society but their fate won’t be decided until a June court hearing. In similar cases the crippling costs for food, shelter and often profound medical needs mount while the wheels of justice turn at what can seem like a snail’s pace.

The good news is that the legislature is currently considering an animal welfare bill that could fast track the lengthy process now in place and ease the financial burden for nonprofits that care for seized animals. Senate bill 237 would streamline the procedure and allow for animals to be released from legal limbo to new homes more quickly while creating a system for animal care providers to collect restitution.

If the bill becomes law it just might raise Vermont’s ranking from middling status to a top tier state for its treatment of animals large and small. And by limiting financial risk for those who work to rescue and protect animals whose health and safety are in jeopardy, it would also serve to reinforce some of our most strongly held Vermont values.