Alaskans should strive for more than minimal animal care standards Editorial

Posted: Friday, July 16, 2004

In May, lawmakers in Austria approved one of Europe's toughest animal rights laws. The measure, approved by a unanimous vote in parliament, makes it illegal to restrain dogs with chains, choke collars or invisible fences, which administer mild electric shocks when dogs try to go outside their boundaries.

Among other things, the law also forces farmers to uncage their chickens and prohibits pet owners and breeders from clipping their dogs' ears or tails, a common practice with some breeds.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Legislature during the past legislative session passed a measure, introduced by Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, that establishes minimum standards for animal care, including:

Enough food and water to maintain animals in good health;

An environment that protects and maintains the good health and safety of the animal; and

Reasonable medical care.

The measure, which recently was signed by the governor, also defines animal cruelty as when a person:

Knowingly inflicts severe and prolonged physical pain or suffering on an animal;

Kills or injures an animal by the use of a decompression chamber;

Intentionally kills or injures a pet or livestock with poison; or

With criminal negligence, fails to care for an animal, causing the death of the animal or severe physical pain or prolonged suffering to the animal.

The bill also lays out procedures for investigating animal abuse complaints and taking animals into protective custody. It also permits humane destruction of suffering animals determined to have little probability of survival.

By Austria's standards, the Alaska animal care legislation appears elementary. It is indeed unfortunate that what should be common sense for example, providing sufficient food and water to maintain an animal's good health needs to be mandated by legislation.

The legislation, however, is helpful in establishing minimum care standards and saying, in effect, anything less than these guidelines is not an acceptable way to treat animals.

The legislation is important for other reasons as well. Poor treatment of animals can be an indicator that humans aren't being treated like they should be either.

As Chenault said in a sponsor statement: "Alaska is far behind nearly every other state in animal cruelty legislation and it is time to acknowledge that animal abuse is a precursor to both child abuse and domestic violence."

Under Austria's animal rights law, those found guilty of animal cruelty can be subject to fines up to $18,000 in extreme cases.

Under Alaska's measure, cruelty to animals is defined as a Class A misdemeanor. Courts may require forfeiture of animals to the state, require defendants to reimburse the state for costs and may limit a defendant's right to own animals for up to 10 years.

A provision of the bill rightly exempts acceptable dog mushing practices, as well as pulling contests, rodeos or stock contests. Most, if not all, mushers treat their animals well and would never knowingly cause harm to their dogs; their dogs require different care than a pet or a house dog does.

There is truth to the adage that a good measure of a person is how he or she treats animals and children.

The benefits of pets to humans are well documented. Not only do they provide faithful companionship, but they're good for human health. Studies show people with pets are more likely to live longer than those without pets, and most pet owners will testify that their animals bring out the best in them. The recent movie "Good Boy!" certainly is on target about who's in charge when humans and animals share a household. (Hint: It's not the humans.)

All the advantages of pet ownership also carry big responsibilities. Being a responsible pet owner also means being a responsible neighbor. People should care for their animals in such a way that it doesn't interfere with anyone else's quality of life. If a dog's barking keeps neighbors awake, if pets are using other people's lawns as a litter box, if children can't play safely in a neighborhood because dogs are allowed to roam free, then something is wrong. And the truth is pet owners are not acting lovingly toward their animals and certainly not toward their neighbors by letting pets do as they please.

At the very least, pets deserve the minimal care set out in Chenault's legislation, and he, the rest of the Legislature and the governor should be applauded for supporting it.

Alaskans, however, should raise the bar reversing the state's reputation for being tops in abuse to tops in the kindness we show our animals, our children and each other should be the goal.

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