Animals are much in the news lately. Inevitably that seems to bring out lots of controversy as well as word play – something that happens in the General Assembly frequently.
When former Virginia Tech quarterback and Atlanta Falcons Michael Vick was arraigned in Richmond last week for animal cruelty and promoting dog-fighting, crowds assembled near the Federal Courthouse. Most were there to decry his actions, but some came just to see the football star.
Members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) were out in force to show the horrors of mistreatment and cruelty to animals. The celebrity status of Michael Vick actually provided a great opportunity to educate the public about this important issue.
The General Assembly struggles with animal issues almost every year.
The definition of a dangerous dog is a perennial topic. Although some people think that certain breeds of dogs should be classified as dangerous, the General Assembly’s approach has been to classify dogs as dangerous only according to their actions. Thus it requires a judge to actually declare a dog to be dangerous if it has injured or killed a person or, under certain circumstances, injured or killed another animal.
One bill that passed this year requires veterinarians to report when they have given a dog its rabies vaccination. This will help localities with the required licensing of dogs, something that can help return animals to their owners or help identify a dangerous dog. The headline in the Daily Press was “Putting a little more bite in dog-licensing law”.
Delegate Orrock introduced the bill after a woman in Spotsylvania County was killed by dogs in 2005. The dogs were unlicensed and there was a delay in locating the owner who was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The bill was opposed by the Virginia Hunting Dog Owners’ Association that is concerned about owner privacy.
Other bills did not fare so well. I had a bill, similar to one carried in previous years by Senator Russ Potts, to add humane education, including compassion and responsibility in the treatment of companion animals, to character education that is taught in the public schools. Even though the bill specified that it applied only to companion animals, it was opposed by the Farm Bureau. They are concerned that somehow this might be the tip of the iceberg that would affect the handling of farm animals such as poultry that are grown for the food industry.
At any rate, what I thought was a bill that would only help children treat their pets well was defeated by the Senate in a close vote (19-21).
Most legislators hesitate to carry animal bills because they know they will be contentious and require a great deal of time and effort, only to be likely to be defeated. Furthermore, at least in the House of Delegates, any animal bill will be greeted by animal noises emanating from legislators. Patrons have to be willing to endure barks or howls, depending on the subject matter – not an eagerly-anticipated event.