DENVER– A complex bill apparently intended to strengthen animal protections in Colorado inspired contradictory interpretations and sparked a storm of protest this week. Sponsored by self-proclaimed cowboy and animal lover, Walsh Democratic Representative Wes McKinley, the bill sought mostly to set up new animal control rules and stiffen requirements for animal control personnel. Although detractors agreed with many of the bill’s provisions, they said in remaking some of the rules, particularly those concerning impounding homeless dogs, the bill would end up in steep and unnecessary increases in euthanasia. A push to amend the bill failed. HB 1124 (pdf) was put down on a second reading in the House Friday afternoon.
Friday’s floor debate followed a five-day social-media networking blitz that pulled in 25 different animal welfare groups who all opposed the bill’s passage.
The campaign began with a press release from the animal rights championing Dumb Friends League. The release asked animal lovers to contact their legislators and urge them to vote no on the measure. An “I oppose HB 1124 – I don’t want animals to suffer in Colorado” Facebook page started on Monday. By Friday’s hearing more than 3,500 emails had been sent to lawmakers, the League’s Michelle Ray told the Colorado Independent, and the Facebook page boasted 1,400 fans and dozens of protest wall posts.
The groups, which also included the Colorado Coalition of Animal Control Officers and multiple regional humane societies, had spoken out publicly for the first time in opposition to the bill earlier this week, saying its passage would have weakened Colorado’s strong animal protection laws and lead to an increased rate of euthanasia in county shelters, especially those located in poor or rural districts.
Animal rights proposals usually generate passionate debate at the Colorado capitol– Friday’s measure was the third pet related bill introduced or discussed this week– but HB 1124 was particularly intriguing in that both sides considered themselves virulently pro-pet.
Bill sponsor Wes McKinley, who represents Walsh, described himself to the Colorado Independent as a third-generation cowboy and animal lover. He said he’d signed on because he believed the measure strengthened animal protection laws, despite what mounting numbers of detractors were saying.
The bill had proposed to raise minimum training standards for animal control officers, limit their authority over livestock and change the way bonds in animal cruelty investigations are issued.
Joe Stafford, a 12-year-veteran with Douglas County Animal Control and president of the Colorado Association of Animal Control Officers (CAACO), a non-profit organization devoted to improving control methods, told the Colorado Independent that the groups decided to go public with their message this week after attempts to work with legislators on amendments to the bill went nowhere.
The strategy worked. Moved legislators put party politics aside and voted their hearts Friday.
Before the bill’s defeat, three different amendments were introduced, including one by House Minority Leader Mike May, who kiddingly asked the chamber to recognize Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, as a “a rabid dog” who “probably should be tethered to his dog house.”
Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, scolded the bill’s sponsor McKinley, a fellow democrat, for casting aspersions on the humane society. Fischer, whose voice grew louder and more agitated the longer he spoke, took the time to read off every group opposed to the measure.
“Rep McKinley said the American Humane Society lied to us. The American Humane Society didn’t lie to us. That is wrong and [we] should never do that on the floor of the House. We should never disparage them on the floor of the House. And I was very offended by that… If you vote for this bill, you will be gutting our animal welfare system. You are going to put funding in the hands of one organization that doesn’t have enough money to cover all this responsibility,” Fischer said.
“Animal welfare bills always bring about the most impassioned debate in the house,” he said. “I think this bill will have a chilling effect on animal welfare laws if passed… Who is going to suffer if this bill is passed? It’s going to be the dogs, cats and horses. Animals have no voice, and if we pass this bill, we will be taking their rights away,” he said.
McKinley had told the Colorado Independent he believed the humane society opposed the bill because it would end up cutting into the organization’s profits.
But Stafford said the humane society was a genuinely non-profit agency and that McKinley’s bill would merely limit the ability of animal cruelty officers to investigate abuse cases and hold perpetrators accountable.
Stafford also told the Colorado Independent he believed parts of the bill were worthwhile.
He pointed to proposed statewide identification badges and a training program for animal welfare officers. He also said he agreed with the judicial clause that would have allowed animal owners accused of abuse and the animal control officer investigating them to state their cases before a judge, who would rule on the matters.
“I’m think that’s the best part of the bill,” Stafford said.
His main problem with the bill centered on a clause regarding indigent bonding that would have directly impacted the ability for shelters to care for homeless pets. He said shelters would be overrun and that would result in an uptick in euthanasia.
“There is no doubt that if this measure is passed without amendments more homeless pets will be euthanized in the state. There were 43,000 animals euthanized in Colorado last year and we will see an increase in that number if this bill is passed,” Stafford said. “This law would have an extremely devastating effect in jurisdictions where shelters are underfunded or outdated. In those areas I would anticipate the number of animals euthanized each year to rise by 20 percent or more, simply because there isn’t enough space or funds to house them. That’s heartbreaking. Lawmakers need to think about this.”
McKinley defended the measure, telling the Colorado Independent its passage was important, because it would create accountability in an industry that had gotten out of control.
“Fake cops with artificial badges shouldn’t be trampling on our personal private property,” McKinley said. “I think this will actually help animals because we will be training those officers. Right now animal welfare officials have too much discretionary authority without any discretionary training. This bill is protecting the constitutional rights of animals,” he said.
Not every animal lover was happy with Friday’s bill kill.
The Colorado Federation of Dog Clubs told the Colorado Independent that Friday’s defeat was a loss for pets.
Glen Belcher was likewise disappointed. He had placed a lot of hope in the bill.
A Gulf War veteran, Belcher’s testimony at an earlier Agriculture Committee hearing resulted in the addition of an amendment that would have made it illegal for Colorado cities with breed bands to enforce these bans on service dogs. Belcher returned to the Capitol Friday, with his service dog, Sky, in tow. Sky is a bull dog, a breed banned in Denver.
In 2007, Belcher was diagnosed with Post Tramatic Stress Disorder and a doctor prescribed a therapy dog to assist him with day-to-day life. Belcher moved to Denver in 2008 and he said living with Sky has changed his life.
“If you read the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s clear city breed-bans don’t apply to service animals. I’ve done everything in my power to let animal control officers know they’re going against the law. I have met with nothing but stubbornness about this issue. So when the amendment didn’t pass, it was kind of my last hope,” he said.