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Kates Nussman Rapone Ellis & Farhi, LLP

More Rights for New Jersey Animals

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From scientific studies to heartwarming memoirs, we know that pets enrich our lives and change them for the better. For many of us, pets become another member of the family and are treated with the unconditional love and kindness such a position brings.

But just as families become dysfunctional, the relationship between pet and owner can sometimes turn very sour. Animal abuse takes many forms, from hoarding pets in inhospitable conditions, running illegal breeding mills, physically abusing animals, to abandonment. As an owner of an abused rescue dog who passed some years ago (we've owned dogs for many years), I know how disgusting that is.

Recently, a particularly violent type of animal abuse has gotten legislative attention in New Jersey. Last summer, Gov. Christie signed a law criminalizing dog fighting, making it prosecutable under laws targeting organized crime syndicates (such as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, also known as RICO) rather than mere animal cruelty offenses. The law targets those who maintain dog fighting arenas, those who own or train fighting dogs, dog fighting spectators, and dog fighting gamblers. Those convicted could serve 3 to 10 years in prison, face fines and be ordered by a court to give up their animals (while paying restitution for any subsequent costs involved).

Unfortunately, life after abuse is uncertain for rescued animals. New Jersey's Department of Health regulates the treatment of animals through its Office of Animal Welfare. A system is in place for animals to be taken from their wild or unsuitable homes and placed in shelters, where they await adoption from a more capable, loving owner. To facilitate the process of finding adequate homes, the Office maintains investigators who work with police to determine whether animal abuse is occurring. New Jersey's laws regulating animal abuse target both active harm to animals and dangerous neglect. In the best case scenarios, the animal is taken from the abusive environment and temporarily relocated to a shelter.

There are many state-approved shelters in the state - the New Jersey Society for the Prevention and Cruelty of Animals (NJSPCA) organizes the different active animal rescue and shelters and directs future owners, workers, and volunteers to nearby venues. But because of lack of spaying and neutering, abandonment, and illegal importation, many of these shelters are bursting at the seams. In the worst scenarios, some shelters resort to killing unadoptable pets; in 2014, one in four animals housed in New Jersey shelters were euthanized.

The Department of Health has guidelines for reducing the number of abused animals. Future owners should educate themselves on the maintenance and cost of raising a pet, and should research the best breed that works with their lifestyle. Pets, as well as feral domestic animals that may be fed by sympathetic individuals, should be spayed and neutered in order to maintain a stable outdoor and shelter population.

Owners should create emergency plans for the care of their pet if sudden changes in living or health conditions-due to natural disasters or lifestyle changes-occur. My dog was abused by an owner who developed Alzheimer's disease. And most importantly, if animal abuse is suspected by a neighbor, for example, people should contact their local animal cruelty investigator. Pets trust their owners with their lives - New Jersey laws are increasingly making them legally responsible for them. Loree Varella, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016 collaborated with me on this blog. She is Associate Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal and Managing Research Editor of that publication.

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