AB 2343: Tearing Families Apart
March 31, 2014 by Nathan J. Winograd
March 31, 2014
The Hon. Mike Gatto
California State Assembly
P.O. Box 942849
Sacramento, CA 94249-0043
Re: AB 2343
Dear Assembly Member Gatto,
We are writing to express our concerns regarding AB 2343, introduced at the behest of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). As it stands, the bill suggests it will make a non-substantive change to the holding period for dogs and cats in California. We’ve read the bill as introduced and realize it serves no purpose, except as a “spot bill.”
We now understand from your office that the current language of AB 2343 will be amended. As we understand it, contrary to the current council digest that the bill “would make nonsubstantive changes in those provisions governing the holding period for stray dogs that are impounded by a public pound or shelter,” HSUS proposes to insert language that will in fact make very significant and very substantive changes to the stray holding law in California. For example, we understand from your office that HSUS proposes that stray cats with no identification at the time the cat enters the shelter either because the collar was taken off, fell off, a microchip scan failed to find a match or the animal never had one, be adopted out or transferred to rescue groups immediately, with no right of redemption by the cat’s human family. This is unfair to families who deeply love their animal companions. Coupled with the fact that California’s stray holding period is already among the lowest in the nation, the goal of increasing lifesaving in California shelters can be met while still giving families a reasonable period of time to reclaim their companion animal. Accidents happen; animals get lost and end up at shelters. Since the choice presented—immediate adoption or death—is a false one, breaking up families by having them lose all rights in their animal with no reclaim period of any kind is draconian. In suggesting this disturbing proposal, HSUS has lost sight of what, in fact, is one of the primary functions and mandates of a taxpayer funded, municipal animal shelter: to provide a safe haven for the lost animals of local people and a place where they can go to find them.
The public funds this service and has a right to expect it. This proposal not only undermines the relationship people have with their animal companions, but it is also illegal. As wrong as it is to talk of cats as “property,” given their current legal status as such and without the benefits that would come with having other legally guaranteed rights at this time in history, in this limited circumstance, their legal status as property confers a protection where no others currently exist: the express intent of the proposal being put forth is to divest a person of his “title” without any reasonable proceeding for that purpose and would manifestly be a taking of property without due process of law. Under the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and of Section 1, Article 1, such taking would not be within the power of the state or municipality, and the statute purporting to provide therefore would be void. Currently, approximately 7,818 families a year reclaim their cats from California shelters. Consider that unless those cats have identification, HSUS’ proposal would potentially divest that number of Californians from their “property” without due process of law. Given that these animals are often beloved family members, it is naïve to assume that none of those people will step forward to challenge the constitutionality of that law. In fact, it is fair to assume that many of them are likely to do so. (Even if they don’t, our legislators should not be in the business of seeking unconstitutional laws.)
Despite its unconstitutional overreach and ethical concerns, HSUS is no doubt arguing that most cats are not reclaimed and so it will affect few families. But this is dishonest. For one, low return rates for cats is not because the cat lacks a family, but because shelters kill them too quickly before their families can find them. In California, the existing holding period is already far from generous: a paltry 72 hours before animals can be killed. Only one state has a holding period lower than California. The answer here is to increase the holding period, not shorten it. Second, there are many reasons why cats end up at shelters as strays, but a number of them are not even lost. Frequently, they are taken to the shelter by neighbors or others who assume they are lost when they are not. Once again, these cats are killed because of the inadequate holding period. Third, low return rates for cats are also caused by misguided lost and found techniques on the part of an uninformed family, because shelter staff are often ignorant of proper techniques to search for lost cats and thus fail to educate families in a manner that will lead to fewer impounds and greater reclaims, because some cats do not enter shelters for several weeks after a family has already stopped looking fearing the worst, and also because of the failure of shelters to match lost reports with the found cats entering their facilities. The answer to the various reasons as to why more cats are not reclaimed by their families is not to strip families of their rights by eliminating a reclaim period altogether, but by regulating shelters and mandating training so they do a better job. In fact, shelters which do a better job at these things vastly increase their reclaim rates for cats: 22% across all shelters in Colorado (about the same as the dog reclaim rate nationally), and even higher in other North American communities. HSUS’ proposal not only counters compelling evidence which disproves the perceived “need” for it, but would in fact exacerbate, rather than fix, the causes of the currently low reclaim rates of cats in California shelters.
In other words, the fault for low reclaim rates for cats lies with the shelter and HSUS is using the poor performance of those shelters as a reason to undermine protections that people in California have a right to expect of their tax-funded institutions. Finally, regardless of the numbers, that not allowing people any time to reclaim their cats is an obvious threat to the deep and meaningful relationship between people and their cats must be pointed out to HSUS which has grown astronomically wealthy trumpeting the value of the “human-animal bond” adds another layer of absurdity to the already bewildering necessity of this discussion, one based on HSUS’ astounding assertion that the citizens of California should immediately lose claims to their animals—often cherished family members—should they ever accidentally end up at a shelter they fund in part expressly for such purpose.
As to the other substantive changes to the stray hold law that HSUS is proposing in AB2343, we also take issue with one other: eliminating the ability of someone who surrenders an animal to change their mind and reclaim that animal. The purpose of the holding period for relinquished animals is three-fold: 1. It gives the surrendering party the opportunity to change their mind and reclaim their animal, 2. It provides protection in the event the animal did not actually belong to the surrendering party, as may happen in cases involving divorce or neighbor disputes, and 3. It gives the animal a chance at adoption.
When the choice is death or reclaim by the surrendering party, the life of the animal is paramount and the surrendering party should be given the opportunity by law to reclaim that animal rather than have shelters needlessly kill the animal since he/she has a place to go. Under no circumstance should the holding period for “owner relinquished” animals be amended to remove the ability of the owner or the true owner to reclaim their animal. We do not object to the animal made immediately available for adoption or transfer to a rescue group, and in fact that is already allowed by current law, but failing that, the animals should be returned to the surrendering party if requested, but not killed, even if that killing occurs after 72 hours.
These are very weighty issues and if you are going forward with this scheme, we believe the public should have ample time to discuss and debate it. We are dismayed that your office is waiting until the last possible moment to amend the bill, but have little doubt that this is being done at the request of HSUS lobbyist Jennifer Fearing in anticipation of opposition so as to do an end run around public comment and participation. This is very undemocratic, especially given the perception that to do so is necessary as the proposal is likely to meet with grave public opposition. But while we are profoundly disappointed that this course of action is being taken, given HSUS’ history of duplicity, we are not surprised. Indeed, HSUS fought against the very legislation that is the subject of your bill which they now seek to amend, asking the legislature not to pass the 1998 Animal Shelter Law and denigrating it in their publications, despite the fact that it has been proven to save tens of thousands of animals every year. Although HSUS claims they now support the California legislation, they continue to fight it in other states. This year, HSUS sought to table similar legislation in Minnesota. It is why both Fearing and HSUS have such a poor reputation in the humane movement.
We also find it completely tragic that rather than working to increase shelter regulation, to increase protections for cats, to give them greater rights, and to protect the integrity of their human families, we have to spend our time trying to prevent what often amounts to the one and only protection animals have in shelters–holding periods–from being eviscerated by HSUS. In short, rather than expect shelters to do the job they are paid to do by the animal-loving taxpayers of California humanely or live up to the expectations Californians have in their tax-funded institutions, HSUS is asking us to accept either a system of mass killing or to give shelters the ability to tear families apart. Do you really want to go on record with that view? To propose legislation that does so? Assembly Member Gatto, our state is better than that.
To that end and because we regret that your office is being used to promote such an agenda by HSUS, we are enclosing model holding period language that will improve lifesaving in California shelters, but without the draconian step of breaking up families. In addition, our proposed language does not abrogate the right of people to change their mind after surrendering an animal, thus preventing shelters from killing animals who have a place to go: back to their home. If we can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Very truly yours,
Nathan J. Winograd