Proposal seeks to make Colorado first ‘no-kill’ state

But large animal welfare group says proponents are barking up wrong tree
The Colorado Statesman

Animal welfare issues are scratching their way to the surface this year as voters may be asked to make Colorado the first no-kill state in the nation and lawmakers continue work protecting shelter animals and injured pets.

Grabbing headlines is a ballot proposal that would ask voters to prohibit shelters from euthanizing animals unless they were sick or suffering, according to language submitted to Legislative Council.

Aurora attorney George Brown is spearheading the initiative.

“We figured that the bottom line is that we just need to stop using the term, or the method, called euthanasia to take care of the homeless pet population,” explained Brown, representing Animals Vote. “It’s not like every day you see the number of animals killed, or see the number of animals that are saved… We figured we’d have to draw the line in the sand and force people to take a look at where are all these excessive pet animals… coming from in Colorado that we have to put down 30,000 healthy pets a year.

“The animals that we have coexisted with on this earth since the caveman times when dogs congregated to small packs of humans and they developed a mutual relationship, we take them into our homes, but yet if we can’t find a home for them, we kill them,” he continued.

Brown points out that many dogs are put down across the state simply because they look like they could be dangerous, such as if they resemble pit bulls, which is banned in some municipalities like Denver. The city has killed thousands of pit bulls.

State law requires shelters to hold an animal for at least five days, but if that animal is not claimed, then it can be “disposed of at the discretion of the animal shelter.” Shelters can also put animals down if they are deemed dangerous or experiencing pain or suffering.

The initiative would strip shelters of the right to put animals down if they’re deemed dangerous or if the shelter does not have additional resources. It would also require a certified veterinarian to examine the animal and issue an opinion before it is euthanized for health reasons.

“We’ll kill them if they look like a pit bull, we’ll kill them if we can’t find a home for them in a number of days, we’ll kill them if they’re ugly or unadoptable, but there needs to be some other way of doing it,” Brown surmised.

At the very least, he hopes that the initiative will encourage people to demand that shelters think creatively about ways to address their pet populations. Brown says statistics show that an extra day alive adds an 8.5 percent chance that an animal will find a home.

Brown uses Austin, Tex., as an example, which became a no-kill city in 2010. Austin is the largest no-kill city in the United States. Shelters there have been able to save 96 percent of all impounded animals by working together and pooling resources with shelters and rescue organizations, according to Brown.

He suggests that rescues will pull dogs from overcrowded shelters if the no-kill law is passed. Brown also believes that the shelters themselves will waive adoption fees, take dogs to pet stores, host events and stay open longer hours to find pets homes if they can’t euthanize them.

“We just keep that secret. It’s our little secret as human beings. We’re killing animals because we can’t find homes for them, yet we created the environment and the situation,” said Brown.

He also believes that the proposed law would encourage more serious conversations on how to solve the problem in the first place, including addressing situations like backyard breeding.

“It’s not euthanasia. It’s destroying them. It’s executing them,” opined Brown.

Brown has been asked to submit another draft of his proposal to Legislative Council. From there, he would submit his initiative to the secretary of state for review. If the measure were approved, then Brown would need to collect the 86,500 valid signatures to place the initiative on the November ballot.

But the No-Kill Pet Animal Act does not have every tail in the state wagging. Lisa Pedersen, president of the Colorado Federation of Animal Welfare Agencies, is concerned about the practicality of such an initiative.

“We support the intention of reducing instances of euthanasia in Colorado at shelters and rescues, but we feel there… could be an immediate and serious impact on both the pets in our care and in Colorado communities,” explained Pedersen.

She said Colorado is at the cutting edge of reducing animal suffering and supporting public safety. Pedersen believes it would be problematic to remove the authority of a shelter or rescue to make decisions on animals in their care.

“The amendment will also hinder a shelter’s ability to protect the public from dangerous dogs…” she said. “That’s a primary part of our function in the community.”

Pedersen also wants to debunk claims that shelters unnecessarily euthanize pets.

“Statistics show that Colorado is a leader in saving pets lives,” she said, pointing to collaborative programs that promote the placement of all adoptable pets.

“We believe that we’re making great progress and we’re really committed to saving the lives of animals every day,” she said. “Our shelters do an excellent job of that, and care passionately about the animals that are given to us by our communities to care for.”

Despite Brown’s claims, Pedersen said shelters do collaborate with other shelters and rescues across the state to move adoptable pets to communities with higher demand.

She agrees with Brown, however, that there needs to be more of a focus placed on prevention.

“That’s really the key that we see. We do not engage our communities to look at what’s causing those animals to come into the shelter in the first place… It’s not a simple fix to just say we’re going to eliminate that authority to do euthanasia,” explained Pedersen.

Pet animal care

Tied to the discussion is the Pet Animal Care and Facilities Act, which is set to sunset if the legislature does not continue it this year. Under PACFA, any place that is used for the keeping of pet animals must obtain a license from the Commissioner of Agriculture.

The goal of the act is to promote public health and welfare by regulating the facilities in which pet animals are bred and housed. Rules have been established around the build-out of facilities, sanitation, ventilation, heating, cooling, humidity, nutrition, humane care and medical treatment. Facilities must submit to inspections in order to prove compliance.

The Department of Regulatory Agencies has recommended that the legislature continue the regulatory program. Lawmakers appear ready to take up the cause.

“PACFA creates the framework within which the Commissioner… regulates those who breed, groom, train, board, rescue, shelter and sell pet animals,” Barbara Kelly, executive director of DORA, explains in the agency’s written recommendation.

“When Colorado’s pets are housed in a licensed facility, they are assured of a clean, safe and healthy environment,” the recommendation continues. “Additionally, animals can carry diseases that are transmissible and harmful to humans. PACFA protects the public health by imposing minimal animal husbandry standards on the pet industry. Animals that are well taken care of are less likely to contract and thus transmit disease to humans and other animals.”

Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, has been charged with the task of presenting a bill that would continue the regulations.

It is not an easy task, as he will need to bring together a wide range of stakeholders, including breeders, animal welfare agencies, animal advocacy groups, state agencies, health associations, agricultural interests, pet stores and veterinarians, among others.

But Lebsock is hopeful, pointing out that while there are many interests at play, everyone agrees that PACFA should be continued. He said there would be a stakeholders meeting on later this week to discuss the matter.

“Everybody agrees that PACFA needs to move forward, it’s just the details of it that we need to work out,” said Lebsock.

But he acknowledges that there would be many interests at stake, which complicates the process.

“There are definite priorities for some of the stakeholders, but one thing that I found that is very refreshing is that every one of the stakeholders believes that PACFA is important and needs to move forward,” Lebsock added. “I’m hopeful and certain that we will be able to come to an agreement on some of the priorities, and then when it comes back to committee for testimony we can have that bigger discussion.”

Colorado Voters for Animals has emerged as a leading stakeholder, requesting that the PACFA continuation include mandatory disclosures in light of animals being brought to Colorado from out-of-state breeding facilities.

“We would like to see mandatory disclosures so that consumers know where animals are coming from and they can be a bit more informed before taking home a little pup that they don’t know anything about,” explained Lori Greenstone, president of Colorado Voters for Animals.

She would also like to see rules around solid surface flooring at facilities.

“Right now, animals do not have to stand on solid surfaces, they can stand on wire their whole lives,” Greenstone said. “It is not a rule through PACFA that they have to have solid surface flooring.”

Overall, however, Colorado Voters for Animals believes continuation of the regulatory program is critical.

“It’s long overdue,” said Greenstone. “We believe very strongly in PACFA and we do want to see it renewed, and it will be.”

Pedersen said the Colorado Federation of Animal Welfare Agencies is also supportive of continuation. Her organization’s priorities include strengthening protections around rabies, which has also been recommended by DORA.

But the Federation would like to see more of a responsibility placed on owners by requiring would-be adopters and purchasers to swear to have their pets properly vaccinated.

“We’d like to see shelters and pet stores and retailers that are providing an animal to a family have a requirement that those individuals adopting or purchasing an animal sign a statement saying they understand that they are agreeing to have their animals vaccinated,” explained Pedersen, who believes that it would also help individuals establish a relationship with a veterinarian.

Other priorities for the organization include prohibiting issuing licenses to individuals who are convicted of animal cruelty and strengthening the department’s ability to inspect facilities.

Animal emergency care

Another bill that animal welfare groups are excited about would grant emergency medical technicians the authority to provide pre-veterinary stabilizing care for ill and injured dogs and cats.

Senate Bill 39 is sponsored by the usual suspects when it comes to animal welfare issues, Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial, and Reps. Beth McCann, D-Denver, and Lois Court, D-Denver.

Welfare advocates call them “heroes” after last year they supported a measure to curb a rash of dog shootings by law enforcement, among other bills.

McCann said she suspects that emergency medical technicians already provide emergency care when situations arise in which a pet may be involved, such as in a car accident or home disaster. She simply wants to codify that in state law so that first-responders are protected.

“It’s designed for a real emergency situation where… an animal is dying or injured badly,” explained McCann, who is the chairwoman of the Colorado Legislative Animal Welfare Caucus, or the CLAW Caucus.

“Some [EMTs] do it already, but we just want to make sure that it’s legal for them to just do very basic, not any kind of true veterinary care,” McCann continued.

Veterinarians and animal welfare groups are supportive of the effort.

“I can’t imagine anybody voting against it to be honest…” said Greenstone. “In general, if a bill helps animals and if it’s well drafted, we typically support it, and that’s what this bill does.”

Pedersen agrees, adding, “It’s a great bill. This kind of thing is happening already, these first-responders when they get to a scene, they want to help everyone, and animals are a part of our families.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com