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  • Writer's pictureAubrie Kavanaugh

Why We Oppose Colorado House Bill 21-1160: It's Dangerous

In 2004, a conference was held in Pacific Grove, California which resulted in the Asilomar Accords which created definitions used to report shelter statistics. The definitions were for the words healthy, treatable, unhealthy and untreatable. Many in our circles feel the Accords were a cop-out. The focus was more on creating definitions to avoid criticism or controversy in the animal shelter industry and less about saving the lives of animals. Defining these words may have seemed like a good idea at the time. The end result almost 20 years later is that those words have been used in ways which do not comport with their use by the public. This has resulted in the deaths of countless animals in our nation’s animal shelters as those animals are classified into categories to justify destroying them. Neo-natal animals, old animals, animals with conditions which are actually treatable (but which have been classified as untreatable for financial reasons), free roaming cats.

The Accords revealed what most of us have come to know in the intervening decades: that animal shelters are a lot like people - good and bad. Good people follow the law and do their best to live their values. Good shelters do all they can to keep animals alive, treating them as individuals worthy of our time and taking all steps to get them back home or find them a new home (while still ensuring public safety). Bad people do not follow the law or use the letter of the law suit their purposes. Bad shelters use industry definitions to justify ending the lives of animals either for space or convenience, having classified them as unhealthy, untreatable or unsafe. We would like to think that does not happen, but it does. For all the progress which has happened in our country, there are shelters that use words not to save lives but to end them.

We now see that same use of words in Colorado in House Bill 21-1160. This bill had a 10 to 1 vote in the House Agriculture, Livestock and Water Committee on March 22, 2021, and passed in the House. It now moves to the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. The bill “specifies the standard of care that each animal shelter and pet animal rescue is required to provide each dog and cat held in its custody. The bill also allows an animal shelter and pet animal rescue to dispose of each dog and cat in its custody only by adopting the animal out, returning the animal to its owner, or transferring the animal another animal shelter or pet animal rescue if the animal:

· exhibits no signs of illness or injury or exhibits only signs of illness or injury for which there is a realistic prognosis for a good quality of life; and

· has not exhibited behavior that is likely to result in bodily injury or death to another animal or human being." (Amendments to the bill were added, none of which affect the core language of the bill which may lead to deaths.)

At the heart of the bill are definitions for the words “healthy” and “safe” which are short and not the least bit descriptive. Not included in the bill is any language setting forth the qualifications of the people making decisions on whether animals are considered healthy or safe. The bill also states that animals shelters and rescues “shall dispose” of cats and cats only by adopting them out, returning them to the owners or transferring them to an animal shelter or rescue “if the animal is healthy and safe.” The bill also uses phrases like "realistic prognosis for good qualify of life," without defining what constitutes quality of life and "bodily injury" without defining if that means a scratch or an injury which requires medical treatment.

The fact that the bill does not define the words "healthy" and "safe" more specifically or by referring to an evaluation matrix is terribly problematic. This means that animals are put at risk for conditions or behavior which may lead to their death unnecessarily. One example would be a animal who growls or exhibits fear-based behaviors while inside a kennel – behaviors not typical for the animal but created by the shelter environment itself. Another example is an animal who cowers in a shelter kennel, shakes and may attempt to bite a person out of fear. Under House Bill 1160, both of these animals are subject to being destroyed if someone deems them as something less than healthy and safe. What about blind animals? What about animals with digestive issues which are manageable? We could list hundreds of examples of how the wording in this bill could be used to end lives. It can be hard for people outside of animal welfare circles to believe that animals in shelters are destroyed for having been classified using words, but it happens every day.

The bill language which states that animals can only be adopted out, returned to the owner or transferred to another shelter or rescue if the animal is healthy and safe is also problematic. If a shelter director has a dog in the shelter with some behavior issues and wants to transfer the dog to a rescue group that specializes in dog rehabilitation, he cannot transfer the dog under House Bill 1160. If another shelter director has an old cat in his shelter with health issues who may only live a few years, that director cannot transfer that cat to a rescue group for placement in a home or Fospice home (foster + hospice) under House Bill 1160.

While the bill has an admirable goal to improve the care animals receive at shelters, a key provision will force shelters to kill animals. Under the bill, shelters must “ensure that the dog or cat is not housed or kept in a manner that fosters obsessive-compulsive behavior.” Due to the wording of this provision, animal shelters could not allow an animal to experience kennel stress even for short periods of time. For example, a younger animal with energy may wander around the kennel or pace back and forth and find a loving home shortly after his or her time at the shelter. Unfortunately, even the best enrichment practices don’t work for every animal and many rescues and no kill shelters will not takes these types of animals they deem “difficult.” Most animal shelter buildings are poorly designed and cannot be reconstructed or replaced due to the costs that can total millions or tens of millions of dollars. As a result, many shelters will be forced to kill these animals to comply with this provision of the bill even though these most of these animals would find placement in loving homes.

Simply stated, we of No Kill Movement oppose this bill in the strongest terms possible. We applaud any city, county or state which decides to take proactive steps to improve the lives of pets in need and to help them either get back home or get to new homes. House Bill 1160 is not that bill. Based on the vagueness of the bill language, regressive animal shelters can easily claim any animal is unhealthy or unsafe as they do today.

We have heard from many people that they interpret the wording of the bill differently than we do. That alone is a red flag which tells us this bill must be stopped. Statutory laws are intended to be written so that each word has meaning and if words are not included, that is for a reason. If 10 people read a bill, all 10 should come away with the same understanding of what the bill means and what will happen if the bill becomes law. That is not the case here. Once a bill becomes law, it is too late to come back and say, "oh, no. That's not what we wanted or what we meant." The damage is already done.

We would like to think a time will come in our society when all shelter animals are treated as having been someone’s beloved companion or being capable of being a beloved companion to a new person or family. We dream of a time when all shelters are No Kill shelters in which all healthy and treatable animals are saved and animals are not destroyed as a result of behaviors caused the shelter environment itself and are not destroyed for health conditions which are, in fact, treatable through proper care.

We of No Kill Movement stand behind No Kill Colorado, the Maxfund No Kill Animal Shelter and Adoption Center and all the shelters and rescue groups which have spoken out in opposition to this bill. If you live in Colorado, we encourage you to contact the members of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and your own Senator to respectfully express your opposition to this bill. If you don’t live in Colorado but would like to express your opinion about the bill while explaining why you believe it could affect your state, please do so.

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