Abused Dogs and Cats Now Have a (Human) Voice in Connecticut Courts

The Connecticut law that includes animals, which took effect almost a year ago, is being watched closely by lawmakers, legal scholars and animal activists, some of them with an eye toward adopting similar measures in other states.

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Christine Kiernan, a co-founder of the animal advocacy group Desmond’s Army, looking at photos of rescued animals at Meriden Humane Society in Meriden, Conn. The group helps to find advocates for animals in need of legal representation. Credit Jessica Hill for The New York Times

“This is really a groundbreaking law,” said David Rosengard, a staff lawyer at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an organization that supported the legislation. “To get justice, a third voice is needed in that room.”

The advocates view their role as reinforcing prosecutors who are overburdened with cases or may consider crimes against animals to be less of a priority. Sometimes, like in Manchester, the advocates argue in court, but much of an advocate’s attention is directed at investigative efforts, like reviewing police and medical records and interviewing animal control officers and veterinarians to bolster a case.

Supporters say that many of these crimes go unprosecuted or result in punishments they contend are too lenient, such as rehabilitation programs that can end with charges being expunged. According to state crime data, of the more than 3,500 animal abuse cases reported in the decade ending in 2015, 47 percent were not prosecuted, another 33 percent were dismissed and 18 percent ended in guilty verdicts.

“What I really, really wanted to do was get at those numbers of convictions,” said Representative Diana Urban, a Democratic state lawmaker who sponsored the legislation. “They’re innocent,” she said, referring to the animals. “They don’t really have a voice, and they are, quote-unquote, a little weaker than you are.”

Ms. Urban and others argue that violence against animals often has close ties to violence against humans, either coming as a precursor to escalating crimes or indicating a home environment where there might be domestic abuse.

But the measure touches on longstanding friction in the law over animals, which have been regarded as property but also as living, feeling creatures protected from abuse. There has been opposition to the law, including from groups such as the American Kennel Club, which opposed the statute because, as the club said in a statement, “individual owners could lose these ownership rights over their animals by having to give up those rights to third parties.”

“We have this disconnect between how people handle their animals and how the law is handling their animals,” said Kathy Hessler, a clinical professor at Lewis & Clark Law School who teaches animal law. “They’re the only sentient beings that fall into the property category.”

Animal law experts said that the prosecution of Michael Vick, the professional football player who pleaded guilty in 2007 to dogfighting-related charges, served as a turning point in the acceptance of advocates for animals. In that case, a federal judge appointed a so-called special master for the dogs involved, and animal rights activists have credited the master, a law professor, with helping to spare most of them from being euthanized.

Beyond Connecticut, similar roles have been established in courts at the county level, and Rhode Island enacted a law in 2012 allowing veterinarians to serve as advocates, though the effectiveness of that legislation has been questioned.

The Connecticut law was named for and motivated by the case of Desmond, a dog that the authorities said was beaten, starved and eventually strangled and dumped by his owner. The case mobilized animal activists, who were incensed after Desmond’s owner was placed in an accelerated rehabilitation program in 2013. (The first case with an advocate to be resolved ended with that defendant placed in accelerated rehabilitation.)

Even now, Christine Kiernan, who helped organize what became Desmond’s Army, tears up when she recounts details of his case.

“This is not just about animals. It’s about stopping the cycle of violence, but it usually starts with animals,” Ms. Kiernan said. “They live. They breathe. They feel.”

The state’s Department of Agriculture maintains a list of lawyers on its website (11 and counting) who want to be advocates. But the state bureaucracy plays almost no part in managing the advocates or connecting them with animals.

That task is left almost entirely to a hodgepodge of volunteers, many of them from Desmond’s Army, including a horse farm manager, a retired I.T. worker and a teacher who considers showing up to court hearings her summer job. One week, Ms. Kiernan crisscrossed the state to attend three different court dates, always in the group’s signature purple shirt with a photograph of Desmond.

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Source: New York Times

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