Massachusetts Senate Bill 1033: Reading the fine print

shelter dog S.B. 1033 is authored by Massachusetts state Sen. Patricia Jehlen.  The bill is pending before the Municipalities and Regional Government Committee. It’s a lengthy bill that amends the laws regarding animals in a number of respects. 

One focus of the bill is to update terminology and increase fees and fines. The penalty for violating the ban on pound seizure, for example, would be raised from a maximum fine of $200 to $1,000. There would be an appropriation of revenue collected from license fees to spay/neuter programs. Animal control would be required to check for tags and micro-chips and take other basic steps to find owners of lost dogs and cats. The bill is supported by the breeders, animal control and the state veterinary medical association.

Some things to note:

Holding period

(1) The bill reduces the period some shelters must hold impounded homeless dogs before euthanizing them from 10 days to 7. 

Killing dogs

(2) The current law for killing shelter dogs prohibits: "methods of execution other than gunshot except in case of emergency, T-61, so-called, an euthanasia solution not under the control of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, unless by a veterinarian, succinylcholine cholide, any drugs that have curariform-like action, electrocution or any other method which causes an unnecessarily cruel death". Ch. 140 Sec. 151A.

S.B. 1033 would amend this provision to authorize: "a humane method of euthanasia in accordance with the American Veterinary Medical Association Guidelines on Euthanasia and section 174A, except by gunshot in case of emergency". S.B. 1033 also contains an explicit ban on use of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide gas to kill dogs and cats in shelters. Proposed Sec. 174A. (Massachusetts law already prohibits the use of a decompression chamber to kill any animal. Ch. 272 Sec. 80E. The law otherwise requires "any old, maimed, disabled, diseased or injured animal" that is impounded, must be killed "humanely". Ch. 133.)

The AVMA guidelines are attached below for downloading.

It is not clear how the complex and lengthy "AVMA guidelines" would be implemented and enforced in an animal shelter. Also, the AVMA finds electrocution acceptable; it is banned under the current law for shelter dogs. The AVMA would authorize use of a captive bolt gun to kill dogs. A captive bolt gun is supposed to stun animals; it was the weapon for choice for the killer in the movie, No Country for Old Men, and is used on animals sent to slaughter. The AVMA guidelines indicate Nitrogen and Argon gas could be used on dogs and cats; this would involve putting the animals in a chamber, filling it with the gas and leaving them there until they die.

The AVMA also finds intracardiac injection of heartstick acceptable if the animal is "heavily sedated, anesthetized, or comatose", something that can be difficult to determine or enforce.  The AVMA guidelines leave open a number of possibly cruel ways to kill shelter dogs.

Training in "techniques for the execution of animals"

The current limited law addressing training states: "any dog officer shall, prior to engaging in execution of animals, have completed under the supervision of a veterinarian ….a course of instruction in humane techniques for the execution of animals." Ch. 140 Sec. 151

This provision is amended by S.B. 1033 to change "dog control" to "animal control" but otherwise would remain the same. The bill would require an animal control officer to "complete a training course offered or approved by the Animal Control Officers Association of Massachusetts or the commissioner". It is simply not clear what training a dog control or other animal control or law enforcement officer would or should receive in order to understand and follow the AVMA guidelines for euthanasia which are written for veterinarians or veterinary technicians. It is also not clear that the animal control officer would be required to obtain certification in euthanasia or even demonstrate that he or she can actually perform these procedures as described in the AVMA guidelines.

Euthanasia for other animals

Except for the prohibition on use of CO and CO2 gas for cats as well as dogs, this bill does not address the methods of killing other shelter animals. Euthanasia methods for these animals are only limited now by the animal cruelty laws, the ban on decompression chambers and the requirement for "humane" killing of "old, maimed, disabled, diseased or injured animals". Curiously in the proposed amendments to Sec. 151, there are steps shelters must take before euthanizing cats as well as dogs. The bill clearly contemplates impoundment of cats. Yet the bill does not set forth limits on methods of killing shelter cats as it does for dogs.

It would make more sense to follow the trend of other states and simply limit euthanasia for all shelter animals to injection, preferably intravenous or possibly intraperitoneal under some circumstances, of sodium pentobarbital or its equivalent by a trained euthanasia technician under circumstances where the dog is not left alone during the process and other animals are not present or within earshot.    

"Dangerous" dogs or more on killing dogs

(3) The bill sets forth a scheme for designating dogs as "dangerous" and imposing requirements on their owners to prevent injury to the public or other animals. Laudably, the bill is specific that a dog cannot be declared dangerous because of breed. The bill, however, does not prohibit shelters from refusing to place or adopt out dogs based on breed.

The bill also does set forth clearly that a dog cannot be considered dangerous based on incidents where there was justification or provocation.

But, under this bill even though barking and growling alone are not enough to have a dog declared dangerous, a dog can still be declared "dangerous" regardless of whether there has been any physical injury to anyone or another animal. There are no provisions concerning the evidence that must be considered in making the determination a dog is "dangerous", whether there must be an independent evaluation by a dog behavior expert or the experience and qualifications of the persons attesting to the dog as a danger.

A dog declared "dangerous" can simply be ordered to be euthanized. There is no requirement for a second chance or provision for training or owner education. If the dog is not ordered to be euthanized, the owner would be required to maintain a $100,000 liability insurance policy to cover any damages that may be caused by the dog. This requirement will surely mean the deaths of many dogs; owners will simply surrender the dog rather than buy the insurance.

A dog that has been declared "dangerous" could not be ordered to be placed out of the town or city with a sanctuary, for example. The bill is explicit that "[n]o order shall be issued directing that a dog deemed dangerous be removed from the town or city in which the owner or keeper of such dog resides". It is not clear the owner could voluntarily remove the dog to a sanctuary. It appears the hearing officer is required to regulate the keeping of a dog declared "dangerous".   

The bill also provides that a "dangerous" dog cannot be ordered chained or tethered to a stationary object like a tree, post or building. But the bill does not prohibit an owner from tethering or chaining a "dangerous" dog, something likely to make the situation worse. It is well known that dogs that are tethered or chained for periods of time can become aggressive; they are 3 times more likely to bite.   

A "dangerous" dog whose owners are in violation of the hearing officer’s order can be seized and euthanized.  

In fact, a substantial focus of this bill is on impounding and killing dogs. Regardless of the scheme for declaring dogs "dangerous" or a "nuisance", there are also still extensive provisions for simply killing dogs if they are "wild", meaning feral; have "worried or killed livestock or fowl" or are found running at large.  

Regulation of kennels

(4) Under current Massachusetts law, a "kennel" is defined as "one pack or collection of dogs on a single premises, whether maintained for breeding, boarding, sale, training, hunting or other purposes and including any shop where dogs are on sale, and also including every pack or collection of more than three dogs three months old or over, owned or kept by a person on a single premises irrespective of the purpose for which they are maintained." ALM GL ch. 140, § 136A  Kennels, including rescue organizations must have a local kennel license. ALM GL ch. 140, § 137A

The current law provides for inspections and a means for suspension or revocation of licenses in the event that animals in a kennel are not kept "in a sanitary and humane manner, or if records are not properly kept" or if upon "the petition of twenty-five citizens, …, setting forth that they are aggrieved, or annoyed to an unreasonable extent, by one or more dogs at a kennel …because of the excessive barking or vicious disposition of said dogs or other conditions connected with such kennel constituting a public nuisance".  Sec. 137C.

The bill leaves this scheme largely intact but would amend the definition of kennels, however, and the penalty for a violation would be increased from a minimum of $25 to a minimum of $50 Sec. 141.  The fine for operating a kennel during a suspension or after revocation of a license would under the bill be up to $250.  The increase in penalties is not the problem; that’s a good thing.

Under S.B. 1033 a "kennel" could be a "personal kennel" which applies only to dogs, a "commercial breeder" kennel, a commercial boarding or training kennel or a domestic charitable corporation kennel. Oddly, a "personal" kennel would include for profit breeders that sell dogs to other breeders or directly to the public. The proposed definition almost disguises them as nothing more than pet owners or hobby breeders. The idea seems to be that these dog breeders would be much less regulated under a "personal" kennel license than if they are treated as the commercial breeders they are.  

The bill provides that kennel licensing information would be available to the public, but it is not clear what information would be disclosed in an application or on the license.  

Commercial breeders which would include wholesale dealers and pet shops could not import cats or dogs less than 8 weeks old for sale or resale; each dog or cat purchased for resale would be required to have a health certificate. Dogs and cats sold by pet shops or other "commercial establishment" would be required to be accompanied by a "health record" which would basically be a vaccination record. That’s about it. Very limited new regulation that would not apply to "personal" kennels, which would be most breeders.