Legislators discuss animals in domestic violence situations

JUNEAU — A state House committee heard testimony Monday on legislation spelling out protections for animals caught in domestic violence situations or in messy break-ups between couples.

The bill, which has been in development for a year, has drawn broad bipartisan support in the Alaska House with 13 legislators signing on as cosponsors after it was introduced. The bill is designed to give the state a framework to protect animals caught between their owners during messy breakups and in domestic violence situations.

It’s split into three sections: one that would amend state laws to require owners of animals that must be seized for neglect or cruelty to pay for cost of care; another that allows courts to enter domestic violence protective orders for pets and a third that would amend divorce laws to require the court to consider an animals’ well-being when determining ownership.

Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, is a family practice lawyer who sponsored and helped draft the bill. Gruenberg said he has had judges sign off on agreements on what to do with animals between divorcing couples. Now he and Rep. Liz Vazquez, R-Anchorage, are hoping to make those types of agreements a regular fixture in divorce courts.

Gruenberg spent most of Monday’s hearing fielding questions from legislators on specific provisions of the bill including how domestic violence protections could potentially backfire if either party could take a pet without the others’ consent. After the hearing, Gruenberg said the language of the bill could still be tweaked, including the potential addition of changes to the state’s animal abuse laws.

Animal shelters and domestic violence groups across Alaska support the bill, saying that it will help reduce the number of homeless, abandoned and neglected animals in the state.

“People who choose to commit acts of domestic violence use whatever they perceive as effective means of control to coerce the people they victimize. All too often, pet abuse is one of those means.” said Lauree Morton, executive director of Alaska’s Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “They may threaten to harm or kill the pet. They may actually harm or kill the pet.”

Kathy Hessler, director of the Animal Law Clinic at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, said she that Alaska’s law, if passed, could be one of the first in the nation to directly address pet custody.

Hessler said pets currently fall under the division of property rules — like home furniture, monetary assets or vehicles — rather than being given custody arrangements.

“The requirement that (the courts) consider the animal’s wellbeing, I think that’s going to be unique,” Gruenberg said.

Many providing written testimony to the bill noted a link between abuse of animals and domestic assault. According to a 2004 report by Carlisle-Frank, Frank and Nielsen, which surveyed victims from seven domestic violence shelters in upstate New York, up to 48 percent of domestic violence victims reported they delayed leaving a dangerous situation because they feared for their pets’ safety. The report was published in the International Society for Anthrozoology magazine called Anthrozoos.

Myra Wilson, manager of Anchorage Animal Care and Control, presented data showing the city had paid more than $142,000 in veterinary and boarding costs for animals seized in animal cruelty investigations.

“As of now, the defendant in these cruelty cases bears no burden financially to support the care of the animals they are accused of harming,” Wilson wrote.

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