As a local animal-cruelty case involving 52 Labrador retrievers heads to trial this week, state lawmakers are considering at least four bills inspired by such cases.
The bills include proposals to increase oversight of smaller-scale pet breeders and to reimburse municipalities for the cost of caring for animals seized in cruelty cases. Another measure aims to speed up certain cruelty cases, by requiring a preliminary hearing within two weeks if animals have been confiscated.
In recent years, several animal-cruelty cases in New Hampshire have grabbed headlines, including one involving 52 Labrador retrievers found in a home in Marlborough last summer. The dogs were kept in filthy conditions, according to testimony from a recent court hearing. The dogs’ owner, John Riggieri, 59, is scheduled to stand trial Friday on misdemeanor animal-cruelty charges.
Supporters of the bills — including local and national humane societies and a bipartisan cast of legislators — say such cases illustrate gaps in the law. Some proposed changes appear uncontroversial. But at least one topic has proved contentious: what sort of requirements the state should impose on smaller-scale breeders and sellers of pets.
Under current law, any person or entity “engaged in the business of” selling household pets must obtain a license from the N.H. Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food. Licensees must keep proper records and submit to inspections by state or local officials.
But there’s an exception for dog breeders who sell or give away fewer than 10 litters or 50 puppies in a year. Two bills aim to change that.
Senate Bill 161 would reduce the threshold for licensing to 20 or more animals. A separate bill, House Bill 688, would create the category of “hobby breeder” for anyone selling between one and 30 animals and require inspections of those breeders.
During a Feb. 7 hearing on SB 161, the main sponsor, Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, referenced a well-known case in which some 75 Great Danes were seized from a home in his hometown in 2017. The owner, Christina Fay, was convicted of misdemeanor animal cruelty.
Bradley said the town clerk contacted the Department of Agriculture with concerns about the number of dogs Fay owned. Though she was breeding dogs for sale, she had not been selling enough to trigger state oversight, according to Bradley.
“Current law did not allow the agriculture department to investigate the Great Dane situation,” he said.
But several people who consider themselves small-time or hobby breeders spoke against the bill, saying it would subject them to unreasonable regulation.
One of them was Susan LeClair of Peterborough, who owns Our Town Kennel and breeds one to three litters of Dobermans each year.
In an interview Thursday, LeClair said she has had Dobermans for about 20 years. She said she’s serious about training, care and medical testing, and keeps her dogs after they retire from breeding. “I don’t give away a dog at 8 or 9 years old, or 6 or 7 years old, because they don’t have a purpose anymore,” she said. “They’re members of my family.”
LeClair considers her breeding program a hobby and runs it in her home, and state inspections raise privacy concerns, she said.
“Most of us, it’s a home-based thing,” she said. “So you’re into my living room, into my kitchen, and the next thing I know the board of health is here because you don’t like the way I do my dishes.”
Angela Ferrari, the president of Dog Owners of the Granite State, a group that monitors legislation related to pet ownership, also opposes increased regulation of smaller breeders.
In an interview Friday, she argued the state should better enforce existing laws. For instance, she said, HB 688 proposes an electronic tracking system for health certificates accompanying pet sales. That would help regulators identify big-time breeders, she said.
Kathy Collinsworth, the executive director of the Monadnock Humane Society in Swanzey, said hobby breeders’ concerns are overblown.
“We’re not looking to implement this bill for reputable breeders,” she said Friday. “They should welcome inspectors into their home if they have nothing to hide.”
Stricter oversight could help prevent cases like the one in Marlborough, Collinsworth contended. Riggieri, the Marlborough dog owner, has referenced selling puppies, but it’s not clear how many he sold each year. He had two litters totaling 19 puppies at the time of his eviction.
Four senators representing local communities — Jeanne Dietsch, D-Peterborough; Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover; Jay Kahn, D-Keene; and Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard — are among SB 161’s co-sponsors.
and cost of care
Senate Bill 77 contains several changes in how criminal animal-cruelty cases would be handled in the courts.
It would require a preliminary court hearing within 14 days of animals being seized, with the goal of bringing cruelty cases to quicker resolutions. That, in turn, could cut down on the time seized animals spend in temporary arrangements and reduce costs for the municipalities or humane societies charged with caring for the animals, supporters said in a hearing Feb. 7.
At the hearing, Collinsworth testified that delays in the Marlborough animal-cruelty case have affected the Monadnock Humane Society. The organization housed the Labrador retrievers before placing them in temporary foster homes and is still paying for their care.
On Friday, she said that between routine care and larger medical expenses, the humane society has spent about $225,000 on the dogs. That’s been partially offset by $100,000 in donations.
Another part of SB 77 pertains to appeals. When defendants appeal in animal-cruelty cases, they can be required to post bonds of up to $2,000 per animal, to cover costs during the appeal. SB 77 would specify that defendants must pay the bond within 14 days or give up the animals.
The bill is also proposed by Bradley and co-sponsored by Dietsch, Hennessey, Kahn and Ward.
Separately, two state representatives, John O’Connor, R-Derry, and Peter Bixby, D-Dover, have put forward House Bill 501, which would establish a state fund to reimburse municipalities for the costs they incur caring for seized animals pending trial.
Municipalities that seize animals are ultimately responsible for them, but humane societies often step in to care for the animals and absorb the costs of doing so. That has happened in the Marlborough and Wolfeboro cases.
Courts can order people convicted of animal cruelty to repay the cost of care, but most restitution goes unpaid, according to Patricia Morris, a Barnstead attorney who chairs the Governor’s Commission on the Humane Treatment of Animals. That leaves municipalities or nonprofit organizations footing the bill.