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There Ought to Be a Law

There Ought to Be a Law

Helga Schimkat is a lawyer, writer, and activist who focuses on animal and environmental issues. This article provides a brief, general overview of animal law issues. It does not constitute legal advice.

Wednesday January 18th, 2012

We often hear about a situation involving an animal that concludes with a passionate statement like, “There ought to be a law!” The implication is that a law would fix the problem. However, that is not always the case.

Animal law overview

Throughout the country, many laws affect animals and are enacted at several levels:

  • city and county ordinances
  • state laws
  • federal laws

Law can be enacted in statute, as regulations, or developed by judges through case law. Local and state laws affect companion animals more than federal law. For example, a city most likely has some ordinances about picking up after your dog, requiring that dogs and/or cats be licensed, leash laws, and so forth. The state may have a law defining animal cruelty and the penalty for it. Yet, many people are not aware of all of the laws because they see that a problem continues (poop is not scooped, dogs run around off-leash where they are supposed to be on-leash, etc.).

Lax enforcement is one reason that the existing laws do not accomplish all that they are supposed to. A town may have a great ordinance regarding leashing and mandatory spay/neuter, but if the animal control officers don’t enforce the law by pursuing those who violate it and issuing citations, the mere existence of the law does not result in positive gain for animals. Similarly, if a state’s animal cruelty law is tough, it does not do much good if the district attorneys do not follow up on those cases.

Why laws are often not enforced

Law enforcement may not enforce laws for a number of reasons including not having enough funding or staff or simply a lack of interest from the agency’s leadership. Regulatory agencies and boards may also suffer from the time constraints of volunteer citizens who serve on the board.

Assessing the need for new laws

When someone starts thinking that a new law is needed to address a problem, the savvy initiator will first find out what laws exist in the jurisdiction of concern and the level of enforcement. If it turns out that an adequate law exists but is not enforced, the concerned party might approach those in charge of enforcing the law (the animal control agency, the district attorney’s office, the veterinary board etc.) to determine the cause of the lack of enforcement and to figure out what could be done to improve enforcement. The party may be able to assist in getting additional funds assigned to the agency by letting elected officials know that the issue matters and directing media attention to the issue, or may put public pressure on the agency if the problem is a lack of will.

Smart legislation

Getting a city council or state legislature to pass a new law consumes a lot of resources. Each attempt uses up some “political capital” of the party pursuing the legislation. Pursuing only those laws that are truly needed to improve the situation of animals and that are capable of being enforced is a more prudent use of precious resources that responding without a careful analysis first of the existing state of the law, the level of enforcement, and the need.

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