ANNAPOLIS – A bill requiring veterinarians to report suspected animal abuse is drawing support from the animal-rights community but skepticism from some lawmakers in the General Assembly.
Veterinarians would have to notify police or animal welfare organizations of suspicious cases under the bill and would be protected from civil lawsuits stemming from those reports.
The bill, heard by the House Environmental Matters committee earlier this week, complements a law enacted last year that made animal abuse a felony.
“The state of Maryland is very serious about acts of abuse against animals,” said Delegate Barbara Frush, D-Prince George’s, who sponsored the bill. “We have to have some sort of hammer to make sure people don’t abuse animals.”
Veterinarians are in the best position to spot abuse, but the fear of lawsuits might prevent them from reporting it, supporters said.
Targeting animal abusers could even prevent other violent acts, they said. Children who hurt animals often grow up to be criminals, and adults who abuse animals are also likely to hurt their spouses and children.
“The linkage between future acts of violence with people starting with animal cruelty is very strong,” said Julie Janovsky, a lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States.
Nineteen states have laws that require or encourage veterinarians to report abuse, according to legislative analysts. Four states are considering similar bills this year.
The bill does not mandate penalties for vets who don’t comply; it leaves that to the state veterinary board, which would be given the authority to regulate the reports. No veterinarians have been penalized in states with similar laws, Janovsky said.
Frush entered the hearing predicting little opposition. But delegates seemed concerned the legislation might be misused and posed a number of objectionable scenarios.
Owners who abuse their animals might not seek treatment for fear of prosecution, said Delegate Dan K. Morhaim, D-Baltimore County.
Well-meaning owners could be accused of dog fighting if their pet gets injured in a street scuffle, said Delegate Donald B. Elliott, R-Carroll.
Other delegates asked about techniques used to train circus elephants, keep bears off property and determine patterns of abuse in cows, since cows can look alike.
Delegate Michael H. Weir, D-Baltimore County, told the story of his beloved chocolate Labrador, Maverick, mysteriously injured on a recent neighborhood adventure. Weir said an overzealous vet might have suspected abuse, when in fact he treats Maverick like a family member and lets him sleep by his bed.
“If we pass this, its going to be another bill that depends on common sense,” said Weir, who said he would probably vote against the bill. “And common sense has been in short supply in our society for a long time.”
It is up to law enforcement agencies and animal welfare organizations that receive the reports to determine whether abuse has occurred. Those investigations should absolve innocent owners, Frush said.
Veterinarians rarely see abuse cases and usually know their clients well enough not to misinterpret an innocent injury, said Dr. Donald Carman, president of the State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, which supports the bill.
“I wouldn’t expect a vet to report every chewed-up animal that comes in,” he said. He said veterinarians see trauma every day and would look for patterns of abuse and extreme cases.
Most abuse cases are not about nuance, Frush said. “If an animal has its throat slit, it’s abused,” she said. “If it’s shot, it didn’t shoot itself.”