Bill would protect animals in domestic violence situations

JUNEAU — A state House committee plans to hear legislation spelling out protections for animals in domestic violence situations.

The bill, which was heard later afternoon, has drawn broad bipartisan support in the state House. Its drafters both say they’re dog lovers who want to see the state protect animals caught between their owners during messy breakups.

Kathy Hessler, director of the Animal Law Clinic at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, said that Alaska’s law, if passed, could be one of the first in the nation to directly address pet custody.

Hessler said pets currently fall under the division of property rules — like home furniture, monetary assets or vehicles — rather than being given custody arrangements.

The bill also amends state animal statutes to require owners to pay the cost of care for animals seized in neglect or cruelty cases and requires courts to consider an animals’ wellbeing when determining ownership or joint-custody.

Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, is a family practice lawyer who sponsored the bill. Gruenberg said he has had judges sign off on agreements on what to do with animals between divorcing couples. Now he and Rep. Liz Vazquez, R-Anchorage, are hoping to make those types of agreements a regular fixture in divorce courts.

Animal shelters and domestic violence groups across Alaska support the bill, saying that it will help reduce the number of homeless, abandoned and neglected animals in the state.

Many providing written testimony to the bill noted a link between abuse of animals and humans. According to a 2004 report by Carlisle-Frank, Frank and Nielsen, which surveyed victims from seven domestic violence shelters in upstate New York, up to 48 percent of domestic violence victims reported they delayed leaving a dangerous situation because they feared for their pets’ safety. The report was published in the International Society for Anthrozoology magazine called Anthrozoos.

Myra Wilson, manager of Anchorage Animal Care and Control, presented written testimony and data showing the city had paid more than $142,000 in veterinary and boarding costs for animals seized in animal cruelty investigations.

“As of now, the defendant in these cruelty cases bears no burden financially to support the care of the animals they are accused of harming,” Wilson wrote.

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