Pet lovers howl at classifying dogs as livestock

Canine friends may be safe this year, but their legal status in the commonwealth may be questioned again next year.

Animal welfare advocates recently voiced concerns over legislation to redefine livestock animals in state law to include hunting, show and breeding dogs. Senate Bill 610, sponsored by Sen. Richard Black, R-Sterling, also sought to place all animal care oversight under a single state agency – the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Several hundred people converged on the Capitol on Jan. 26 for Virginia Humane Lobby Day to oppose SB 610, said Robin Starr, chief executive officer of the Richmond SPCA, one of the event’s organizers.

The next day, Black announced that he was pulling the bill for this session. On Feb. 2, the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee formally voted to postpone consideration of the measure until 2013.

According to his legislative aide, Chris Lore, Black may seek approval of the bill during the General Assembly’s next session.

“This is a bill that we’re actually going to pass by for the year. It’d be easier to wait and look over it over the summer because there are various issues with dogs that people are concerned about,” Lore said this week.

SB 610 states that “ ‘Agricultural animal’ or ‘livestock’ means any domestic animal raised, herded, or farmed as an agricultural product or associated with agriculture, including equids, cows, calves, yearlings, bulls, oxen, sheep, goats, lambs, kids, hogs, pigs, poultry, gamefowl, fowl, hunting dogs, working dogs, and show dogs.”

It goes on to say that the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services “occupies the entire field of regulation of the care, control, and handling of agricultural animals. No political subdivision, locality, or humane society shall regulate the care and handling of agricultural animals.”

The bill’s impact statement said the measure would increase the administrative and regulatory responsibilities of the agriculture department, making it “the sole regulator of the care and handling of agricultural animals.”

“Currently, VDACS is not responsible for regulating, inspecting, or monitoring dog shows, but under this legislation the department may assume that role,” the statement said.

Agriculture department officials estimate that they would need about $185,000 a year to carry out the additional duties.

Animal welfare advocates oppose SB 610 because it would effectively remove dogs from the jurisdiction of humane societies and animal shelters.

“I don’t see how the Richmond SPCA could support the bill next year,” Starr said.

“The bill in its current state would set the standard for dog care back literally decades. The standards of dog care are already minimal, and the intention of the bill is clearly to lower the standards even further. Agricultural animals simply do not have the same rights as companion animals.”

Myra Jennings of Beagles to the Rescue, a nonprofit group based in Virginia Beach, agreed.

“We don’t want the bill at all,” Jennings said. “All dogs are companion animals. As bad as the situation with puppy mills is now, can you imagine what it would be like without regulations? Dogs suffer enough as it is with the mills as they are now.”

Dogs wouldn’t be the only animals put in jeopardy by SB 610, animal welfare advocates say. They said the legislation also is a threat to chickens, ducks, turkeys and other poultry.

United Poultry Concerns, an activist group dedicated to “promoting compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl,” opposes Black’s proposal.

“Farm animals in this state already have no rights,” stated Dr. Karen Davis, the organization’s president. “Birds are just as sensitive and just as alive and just as deserving as dogs and other animals. We do not support the bill now or next year.”
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