Animal cruelty bill sparks controversy

Published 9:28 pm Monday, January 31, 2011

By Tracy Kennedy
Capital News Service

A bill that would redefine animal cruelty standards and enforcement procedures has animal rights advocates up in arms.

The controversy over House Bill 2482 got so heated in Virginia’s General Assembly that the sponsor, Delegate Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, agreed last week to hold off on the legislation for a year so people can study it.

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HB 2482 would repeal the state’s ban on those convicted of animal cruelty from selling animals. It also would remove “disease progression” as a legal justification for seizing an animal from its owner for emergency veterinary treatment.

Under the measure, breeders and pet stores that fail to “adequately care” for their animals would be subject to seizure of their animals, but a court could return the animals to the owner upon conviction.

“My bill’s original intention is simply to ensure that the civil and property rights of honorable animal owners are protected against what could be construed as an over-zealous application, perhaps even a misapplication, of the powers of the state,” Ware explained in an email.

But the Richmond SPCA has dubbed the bill “The Animal Abusers Protection Act,” arguing that “it will eviscerate our 20-year progress on laws for the protection of companion animals in Virginia.”

On the bill’s page at, the measure’s proponents, including dog breeder Charlotte Jean Payne-Cyhanick of Staunton, got into a bitter argument with the proposal’s detractors, including the site’s founder, Waldo Jaquith.

“The laws in Va. are so vague and so easily manipulated that it is very easy for anyone with any agenda to persecute an individual simply because they don’t like them or disagree with their lifestyle,” Payne-Cyhanick wrote.

Payne-Cyhanick has firsthand experience with such laws: In December, a Staunton jury convicted her of mistreatment of animals and failure to maintain proper records. She was found guilty of two counts of selling immature puppies and one count of owning more than 50 dogs. The jury recommended that Payne-Cyhanick pay a $4,950 fine and give up some of her dogs.

Out-of-state residents joined the discussion on Richmond Sunlight.

“Folks in Maine are watching this bill very closely,” one man wrote. “We have similar laws. Congratulations to everyone involved for getting this important bill to this point. Good luck in your efforts. We are with you in spirit!”

Opponents of the bill were equally vocal.

“The more I look at this, the more I suspect that this is a bill that’s designed to create a larger gray area for the mistreatment of animals,” Jaquith wrote after noting the removal of disease progression as a cause for seizing an animal. “I don’t know that’s the case, but it sure looks like it.”

On Jan. 21, the bill was assigned to the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee. Within a day, discourse on the bill had devolved into insults and accusations.

When accused of being “in bed” with the Humane Society of the United States, Jaquith responded: “I see we’ve gone to crazytown. I think I’m done here.”

The Richmond SPCA’s chief executive officer, Robin Starr, even logged in to comment on the issue.

“I do not have the time to participate in all of this endless haranguing,” Starr wrote. “It is simply not productive, because there is no rational dialog possible with the proponents of this bill. I will simply make this observation: these innumerable and endlessly long posts document the insanity, irrationality and paranoia of the people who are promoting this irresponsible bill.”

On Tuesday, HB 2482 was referred to a subcommittee of the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.

Because of the controversy, Ware asked the subcommittee to table his bill for the year and study the implications it might have.

He said the study should examine “those instances in which it appears, on the surface at least, that some individuals were targeted for improper reasons and suffered financially and legally.”