BOSTON – Lawmakers in Massachusetts and several other states are weighing proposals to create registries of animal abusers as a means for ensuring that pets wind up in the care of responsible and humane owners.
A bill, heard Wednesday by a Massachusetts legislative panel, would require anyone convicted of an animal cruelty crime provide their name, address and a photograph to an animal abuser registry that would be maintained by the state Department of Criminal Justice Information Services. The agency would generate a computerized list that can be consulted by pet shops, breeders and shelters who in turn would be asked to check the list before allowing a pet to be sold or adopted.
Analogous in some respects to sex offender registries, animal protection groups say the idea is beginning to gain some traction in the U.S.
New York City created an animal abuse registry in 2014, and Tennessee gave approval this year to the first statewide registry. Bills were also being considered in Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, according to the website of the National Anti-Vivisection Society.
Scott Heiser, senior attorney for the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund, said access to such a database can keep animals from falling into the hands of the wrong people — hoarders, for example, who are prone to repeat their behavior.
"A registry law can go a long way toward preventing recidivism in hoarding cases," said Heiser.
Massachusetts stiffened penalties for animal cruelty last year and required veterinarians to report any suspicions of abuse to authorities. Called the Protecting Animal Welfare and Safety Act, or PAWS, the measure was passed after public outrage over "Puppy Doe," a dog that was found beaten and tortured in Quincy and later euthanized.
The original PAWS bill included an animal abuse registry, but the provision did not make it into the final version of the law.
While there appear to be no organized opposition, concerns have been raised about privacy, potential costs involved with maintaining the registry and new burdens on pet shop owners and breeders, who themselves would face penalties for failing to determine if a customer has a history of abuse.
The Massachusetts proposal differs in one key respect from the Tennessee law in that the registry would be confidential and kept out of broad public view, which could allay some concerns over the privacy rights of those whose names are on the list. The Tennessee law, which is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, calls for a publicly accessible website.
Massachusetts would also require convicted animal abusers to pay an annual $50 fee to cover administrative costs of maintaining the registry.
First-time offenders would remain on the registry for two years, with five years added for any subsequent offense.
Rep. Steven Howitt, the bill's lead sponsor, said research has suggested that cruelty to animals is often a precursor to violence toward people.
"Many abusers of individuals, of humans, have started off as abusers of animals," Howitt, a Seekonk Republican, said at Wednesday's hearing.