Animals get pet projects at Capitol this year

The legislature this year gave a wag of the tail to animals, offering protections against police shootings and encouraging shelter pet adoptions.

Senate Bill 226 received the most attention after a string of more than 40 dog shootings by law enforcement across the state caused uproar. Sens. David Balmer, R-Centennial, and Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, and Reps. Lois Court, D-Denver, and DonCoram, R-Montrose, sponsored the measure.

Thirty-year-old Erie resident Brittany Moore was at the center of the conversation. She watched in 2011 as officer Jamie Chester shot her German Shepherd, Ava, when police responded to a call to Moore’s house. The bullet severed Ava’s spinal cord, ultimately killing her.

The rawhide bone she had in her mouth at the time of the shooting fell to the ground as Ava let out an awful squeal, according to Moore’s account. She said she was not permitted to comfort Ava as the dog bled out and died.

“It doesn’t just go away,” Moore said of the experience after Gov. John Hickenlooper signed SB 226 on May 13. “We’ll always miss her; she’ll always be in our hearts.”

Moore has found some comfort in the legislation signed into law. It requires police officers to allow owners an opportunity to first restrain their dog when an officer is responding to a nonviolent call. It also creates a volunteer task force, including animal welfare experts, to create a three-hour training webinar for law enforcement.

The measure was perhaps the most bipartisan legislation of the session, supported by the law enforcement community and having nearly zero cost to the state because of the volunteer nature of the program.

“This is a bipartisan day for dogs,” Balmer exclaimed at the bill signing.

He had passionately supported the measure, organizing rallies at the Capitol during which dozens of dog owners showed up on the west steps with their pets in tow. As owners rallied while their best friends barked in approval, a DJ blasted “Who Let the Dogs Out.”

“An army of dog lovers started to contact us…” Balmer said on April 3 before the bill was heard in committee, where it received unanimous approval. “We’re going to be a giant movement nationwide that began here in Colorado.”
Shelter pets

Shelter pets also received a nod with Senate Bill 201, which designates adopted pets as the official pet of the state.

Unlike SB 226, the shelter pet bill surprisingly saw its share of controversy. The measure passed the Senate by a vote of 23-11 and the House by a vote of 39-21. Votes crossed party lines.

The idea started with a project by students from Peakview School in Walsenburg. The students were learning about the legislative process. They proposed legislation that would make dogs and cats adopted from shelter and rescue centers the official state pet. But once lobbyists stepped in, the students got more than they bargained for.

Representatives of dog clubs and shows, pet store owners and groomers expressed fears that the bill would be viewed as insulting to non-shelter pets, which dominate their trades. Others felt the bill was too narrow and unfair to a variety of shelter pets, including reptiles and birds.

Committee hearings were packed with citizens and their pets; lobbyists were pitted against students; and sponsors found themselves shaking their heads at how an innocent bill could turn into a legislative showdown.

“It ended up being one of my most contentious bills,” remarked Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, at the April 3 bill signing. 

Pettersen sponsored the bill with Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood. Despite cries from lovers of all animals — not just dogs and cats — the bill that the governor signed defined state pets as only “dogs and cats that are adopted from Colorado animal shelters and rescues.”

Hickenlooper appeared to have no problem with the bill at the signing ceremony: “Families from across the state bring these animals into their lives and enrich their homes…” he declared, with his own dog, Skye, sitting next to him. “These pets become a huge part of people’s lives.”

Impounding livestock

Pets weren’t the only animals to be addressed through legislation this year. Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, ran House Bill 1125, which would have prohibited the impoundment of livestock by animal control unless a licensed veterinarian determined that the seizure was necessary to preserve the life of the animal.

But Sonnenberg ran into trouble with the bill when animal rights groups raised concerns that the measure would have established different standards of cruelty for livestock than for pets.

“The proposed bill would create a different standard of cruelty as applied to livestock,” Lisa Pedersen, president of the Colorado Federation of Animal Welfare Agencies, explained at a more than three-hour Feb. 18 hearing before the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee. “Under this bill, impoundment will only be possible to preserve the life of the animal, not if the suffering of that animal… is not life threatening… The cruelty is cruelty regardless of the type of animal.”

Sonnenberg introduced the bill after reports of a case from Clear Creek County surfaced last year in which animal control officers seized reindeer and other livestock. The story caught headlines because Bill Lee — a real-life Santa who visited with children at malls, parades and festivals — owned the animals. He would bring the reindeer with him. Some felt it was unfair to take Lee’s reindeer.

Legal challenges emerged in which a judge found that the law used to seize the animals was unconstitutional because it didn’t provide due process for owners.

Sonnenberg believes someone with years of experience in veterinary medicine should evaluate such cases, not an animal control officer with limited training.

“It’s a fairly simple bill, it just requires an expert, someone that understands the health of an animal, make the decision whether or not an animal is taken,” he said of his proposal.

Sonnenberg said he might try to run the legislation again next year.

Tail docking

Another livestock bill that caused controversy was House Bill 1231, sponsored by Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton. The measure would have limited the practice of tail docking of dairy cattle, which farmers say is already a very rare occurrence.

Tail docking is the partial amputation of a dairy cattle tail. The measure would have prohibited the practice unless performed by a licensed veterinarian and under anesthesia.

Lebsock himself acknowledged that tail docking is rare, pointing only to one farm in Morgan County. But he was approached by animal rights groups, including the Humane Society and the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“I want our agriculture industry to look good,” Lebsock said of his intention.

Critics, however, said the measure was unnecessary. They also suggested that if the bill was truly well-intentioned, then it should not just apply to dairy cattle, but to all animals, including pets like dogs and cats, as well as livestock like pigs and sheep.

The bill died on the House floor in March. But supporters say they may propose a 2014 ballot measure that would halt the practice in Colorado. Proponents believe the initiative would have widespread support.

See the June 21 print edition for a full listing of all the legislative enactments from the 2013 session.

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