By JESSE McKINLEY, New York Times | Published: February 21, 2010
SAN FRANCISCO — California may soon place animal abusers on the same level as sex offenders by listing them in an online registry, complete with their home addresses and places of employment.
The proposal, made in a bill introduced Friday by the State Senate’s majority leader, Dean Florez, would be the first of its kind in the country and is just the latest law geared toward animal rights in a state that has recently given new protections to chickens, pigs and cattle.
Mr. Florez, a Democrat who is chairman of the Food and Agriculture Committee, said the law would provide information for those who “have animals and want to take care of them,” a broad contingent in California, with its large farming interests and millions of pet owners. Animal protection is also, he said, a rare bipartisan issue in the state, which has suffered bitter partisan finger-pointing in the wake of protracted budget woes.
“We have done well with these laws,” he said.
In 2008, voters in the state passed Proposition 2, which forced growers of hens, calves and pigs to provide more room in their cages. That law has upset many in the California egg industry and prompted some producers to even move out of the state. As a result of the new laws, cost for egg production has increased and more eggs are shipped to California from neighboring states and Mexico.
Under Mr. Florez’s bill, any person convicted of any felony involving animal cruelty would have to register with the police and provide a range of personal information and a current photograph. That information would be posted online, along with information on the person’s alleged offense.
The bill was drafted with help from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an animal-protection group based in Cotati, Calif., north of San Francisco. The group has promoted the registry not only as a way to notify the public but also as a possible early warning system for other crimes.
“We believe there’s a link between those who abuse animals and those who perform other forms of violence, like sex offenses” said Stephan Otto, the group’s director of legislative affairs. “Presumably if we’re able to track animal abusers and be able to know where they live, there will be less opportunity where those vulnerable to them would be near them.” People could move away to different areas.
In addition to sex offenders, California lists arsonists in an online registry, and the animal abusers would be listed on a similar site, Mr. Florez said. Such registries have raised privacy concerns from some civil libertarians, but Joshua Marquis, a member of the defense fund’s board and the district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore., said the worries were unfounded.
“Does it turn that person into a pariah? No,” Mr. Marquis said. “But it gives information to someone who might be considering hiring that person for a job. They won’t find employment.”
He added: “I do not think for animal abusers it’s unreasonable considering the risk they pose, much like the risk that people who abuse children do.”
One supporter of the proposed law, Gillian Deegan, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Botetourt County, Va., says such a registry could also be valuable in tracking people who run puppy mills and animal-fighting rings, as well as hoarders, who sometimes collect hundreds of animals, sometimes resulting in neglect.
“A lot of times these people will just pick up and move to another jurisdiction or another state if they get caught,” said Ms. Deegan, who has written on animal welfare laws. “It would definitely help on those types of cases where people jump around.” One Web site — Petabuse.com — already offers a type of online registry, with listings of animal offenders and their crimes. If an alleged abuser is listed, then they become a marked person the rest of their life.
Such registries have been introduced in other states, but never passed. In 2008, a similar bill in Tennessee stalled after passing the State Senate.
Opposers to this type of bill believe the owners of animals are more likely to love and appreciate their own animals than an enforcement officer of the state.
That legislation was highly endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States, said Wayne Pacelle, the president and chief executive of the society.
Mr. Pacelle said that the proposed financing mechanism for the California bill, a tax on pet food, was “an extremely controversial idea” and unpopular with the pet food industry.
Taxes are consistently opposed by conservatives and Republicans in California, and that gives Mr. Pacelle doubts about the bill’s prospects.
“The idea of that succeeding in this climate in California is not high,” he said. Although some are for the bill they must realize the cost of enforcement throughout the state. California is strapped for cash.
But the bill’s sponsor, Mr. Florez, who recently helped establish an Animal Protection Caucus, says he is confident that he has the votes to move the measure forward and estimates that the registry would cost less than $1 million to establish. A budget for enforcement staff would create numerous badly needed jobs for the state.