Protect Yourself from the Vigilantes!
Posted on 11/08/2011 in Your Dog, Your Rights.
by Sara Chisnell, UKC Legal Counsel
I like to try to find the positive in most people and give them the benefit of the doubt, and, for the most part, individuals involved in rescue or animal control are wonderful people with big hearts who just want to help animals. Unfortunately, there are many out there who have “drank the Kool-Aid”, have been led to believe by other judgmental souls that all dog breeders are evil, and become vigilantes.
There are many examples from the past few years where breeders have been wrongfully targeted. Many of you have probably heard the tale of the Murder Hollow Bassets. Wendy Willard, Master of a pack of Basset Hounds, had a warrant for search and seizure on her property executed based on alleged violations of the Philadelphia “limit law”. While it was later found the limit law applied only to residential buildings and not outbuildings, Wendy was pressured into relinquishing 11 of her 23 dogs to the Pennsylvania SPCA at the time of the raid. She was threatened that the other 12 dogs would be taken, and heavy fines would be levied if she refused. The 11 dogs were spayed/neutered within three days of the seizure, and one died as a result. The 10 that lived were transported to a rescue and adopted out. Wendy faced 22 charges of “animal cruelty” that were later all withdrawn.
In South Dakota, a large scale breeder of bird dogs, Dan Christensen, was unfortunately the target of many local authorities. His property was first entered through an alleged tax violation, and an animal control agent was asked to accompany under the guise of controlling loose dogs. A search and seizure warrant was later obtained based on the improper observations of the animal control agent during execution of the tax warrant. The Humane Society of the United States, who was not listed on the warrant, was called in to assist, using an agent who was later fired, and the seizure of the dogs was filmed by HSUS. The 172 seized dogs were transported in a truck that had been used for three other recent raids and had not been sanitized. Christensen’s veterinarian was given 10 minutes at the fairgrounds, where the dogs were being held, to examine all of the dogs.
The dogs were housed in hog pens, where they could jump over barriers and got all muddled and jumbled together. Identification went out the window. Many dogs later developed parvo, kennel cough, and mange. Some were injured, some were transported to foster care, and many began fighting through crates. The dogs became so mixed up and misidentified that he would no longer be able to sell or breed them.
The warrant was finally found to be improperly issued, and all criminal charges were dropped. However, his breeding program was so thoroughly damaged from mishandling of the seized dogs that Christensen has filed a $5 million dollar lawsuit against all parties involved.
These are two extreme illustrations of why all of you dog owners/breeders/trainers should be prepared and take steps to protect yourselves. If you think this can’t happen to you, you are dead wrong. You never know who might be working in animal control with an agenda, what neighbor may be annoyed with barking dogs, or what a disgruntled dog buyer might do to come after you.
There are many steps you can take to safeguard your kennel, both before any problems arise and in the unfortunate case that the authorities come for a visit, or worse. Hopefully this column can give you some good ideas to help best protect your dogs. Use these to come up with a game plan, and share your policies with all involved - your family, kennel help, or anyone else involved with your dogs.
There are many things you can do to decrease your chances of being investigated in the first place. First and foremost, make sure you are familiar with and in compliance with all state and local laws. One of the most important and simple ways to comply is to make sure you are properly licensed. There have been many instances where incorrect or no licenses were all the wrongdoing found, but it has been used as a basis to seize dogs.
Rules and requirements on licensing vary from state to state and county to county. Sometimes there are even requirements at the city or township level as well, so you must be aware that there may be many layers. Some places may require a kennel license over a certain number of dogs, and some states may have kennel license as an option to individually licensing each dog. Where it is an option, individual licenses may be an advantage, as obtaining a kennel license may officially give you kennel status which could open you to inspections and other requirements.
Some places, in addition to basic license laws, may have breeder/kennel laws that require more compliance than the basic annual inspection that’s often necessary to obtain a kennel license, which is yet another reason it’s important to know and understand all state and local laws.
More and more cities/townships/counties have enacted dog ownership limit laws, which all dog owners need to be aware of. Remember, as illustrated with the Murder Hollow case, animal control can use limit laws as a basis to obtain a warrant. Outside of licensing and breeder laws, there may also be zoning laws that apply to “kennels”. Some areas may be zoned to disallow kennels.
Most states have vaccination laws, which require dogs to be vaccinated for rabies. Often, kennel/breeder laws contain more specific vaccination requirements as well, besides just rabies. Make sure you’re aware of and in compliance with all dog laws.
It’s also a good idea to keep organized breeding and health records for all dogs in your care. Keep your kennel area clean and keep everything in good repair. Do your best not to give them any reason or basis to show up in the first place!
Public relations is another important factor. Follow through on all promises and contracts with puppy buyers or clients. Disgruntled customers can be your worst enemy. I would carefully screen anyone coming to your property in relation to dogs. Individuals with an agenda have been known to pose as puppy buyers or clients to get in to a kennel and “gather evidence”, meaning they will find any little thing wrong to use against the breeder or trainer. Otherwise innocuous circumstances, such as feces in a run, may be photographed and twisted into something else entirely to make it appear as if the kennel is overrun by feces. That then may grow into allegations of animal cruelty by means of unsanitary conditions. Do you see how this works? Carefully screening any strangers can help protect you against this.
If YOU are investigated
In the event that an animal control officer or other law enforcement comes to your door, there are many things to keep in mind.
First and foremost, keep your cool. It can be quite scary when the law show up with badges and vests and even guns, but try to be confident in yourself and the care you’ve given your dogs. Be polite, but firm. Take care you don’t go to the other extreme, however. Copping an attitude or getting belligerent will get you nowhere, and if you push it too far, could even land you in jail! Do not get loud, or curse, or get defensive. Getting defensive or nervous causes some to talk too much, or even sound guilty.
Try to abstain from answering anything beyond identifying yourself. Any information you provide that could be considered incriminating could be used against you. Step outside to talk to them, whether it be your home or kennel, and shut the door behind you as well. Anything they can view in plain sight can also be used against you.
Ask for identification, get the name of the individual, and also the agency or agencies of all involved. Also ask them for the reason they are there. If you feel the questioning gets pushed too far, insist that you need to speak to a lawyer before answering any further questions. If you are so unlucky as to be arrested, absolutely remain silent. Remember, you do have the right to an attorney.
Two very important points.
•DO NOT LET THEM IN if there’s no warrant. In most situations, it’s not within an animal control officer’s power to request or execute a warrant. If there is a warrant, demand to see it and read it very carefully. Warrants are narrowly tailored and are not permission for the officers to conduct a fishing expedition. However, if you are in an area that has kennel or breeder laws, animal control may be permitted to conduct unannounced inspections; yet another reason to be very familiar with state and local laws.
•DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING without having an attorney review it first! Many unfortunate individuals have been intimidated into “relinquishing” animals due to pressure of facing higher fines or heavier charges. Remember Wendy Willard of Murder Hollow Bassets. If you sign any animals over to animal control, they are gone.
After the visit, I would advise writing a memo of all that happened, while it’s still fresh and you can better recall everything. If you do receive a citation or ticket, or are charged with anything, it would be worth it to seek the assistance of an attorney. Your entire kennel could be in jeopardy.
Here’s to hoping none of you have to suffer through any unfounded complaints or investigation. Unfortunately, in the current state of affairs in the dog industry, and all the hype about “puppy mills”, it seems as if many are looking for negatives and trying to attach the name “puppy mill” to any dog breeder. It’s best to be prepared and arm yourself with knowledge so you’ll be ready in the event of a visit.