By Chris Van Buskirk
Amy Baxter’s daughter had wanted a dog since she was in preschool.
When COVID hit and Baxter’s daughter was in eighth grade, she thought it was the right time to get a puppy and adopted a labradoodle named Ollie. Five months later, Baxter dropped Ollie off at a dog day care in East Longmeadow.
An hour and a half later, she received a text concerning.
“I get a text saying your dog has a cut, could you come pick him up and take him to a vet,” she told the News Service. “When I got there, my dog couldn’t stand up. Turns out, dogs had broken his legs with their teeth. He was mauled by a pack of dogs.”
Ollie was in and out of the hospital for eight weeks, went through three surgeries, before dying two months later. The death prompted Baxter to work with legislators to craft a bill that would set up new regulations around boarding kennels and day care facilities, an area advocates say currently has no state oversight.
A Rep. Brian Ashe bill, dubbed “Ollie’s Law,” would charge the state’s director of animal health with creating rules around staff to dog ratios, group sizes and supervision, minimum housing, care requirements, physical facility requirements, dog handling, insurance, emergency plans, and penalties for violations of regulations.
The Consumer Protection and Licensure Committee sent that bill (H 305) to study, effectively ending its chance to advance this session. Supporters of the bill said the legislation was most likely sent to study because of a disagreement between advocates and the American Kennel Club Association.
“I have my suspicions about what happened in Consumer Protection, but the American Kennel Club opposed the bill. Their members don’t own day cares. They own breeding kennels, which would have fallen under that definition,” Baxter said.
A New England spokesperson for the American Kennel Club was not available to discuss the situation, but said in an email that they believed the Legislature was “addressing this problem.”
Animal rights advocates organized as Ollie’s Law Coalition are throwing their support behind two bills (H 949 / S 1322) that would set minimum standards for boarding kennels and day care facilities.
“[S 1322 is] like a baby omnibus bill. It has a few other things in it, but the day care piece has the exact same language as [Ollie’s Law],” Baxter said. “It’s still a great vehicle. And we met with [Sen. Michael Rodrigues] and his staff this morning, and they’re working on it with MDAR, they have every intention of putting something on the floor.”
The Senate bill, filed by Sen. Harriette Chandler, prohibits the sale of puppies and kittens under eight weeks old, requires the promulgation of regulations for boarding facilities and breeders, bars roadside sale of animals, and updates “outdated” language in kennel licensing laws , according to the MSPCA.
The Municipalities and Regional Government Committee held a hearing on the bill at the end of September 2021 and then reported it favorably to the Senate Ways and Means Committee in December 2021.
Senate President Karen Spilka met with the advocates pushing the bill in her office Thursday after the MSPCA and Animal Rescue League of Boston held a rally outside the State House.
“Was thrilled to meet with the advocates for Ollie’s Law who visited today, especially this sweet girl Jellybean, who is looking for a family to call her own!” Spilka said in a tweet that included a picture of the Ashland Democrat holding a puppy. “I met my sweet boy Lincoln at the State House at an advocacy day in 2014.”
As it stands now, a person who wants to operate a kennel must obtain a license and get approval from the municipality. But Boston Dog Lawyers founder Jeremy Cohen says there’s an issue — “kennel” can apply to many different entities, whether it’s somebody who is keeping a number of dogs at their home or a professional business setting up shop.
“The naming has been a problem from the beginning of us trying to sort this out. Because kennel encompasses far too many entities and private people,” he told the News Service.
In one instance, a client of Cohen’s wanted to open a shop in Marblehead, went to the local town clerk, and got a certificate for their business. The issue, Cohen said, is the certificate the client received only recognized the name of the business and was not a license to operate a kennel.
Cohen says the lack of awareness around current laws and lack of regulations leads to legal issues for both business and pet owners.
“Really, you have to make sure for zoning purposes that this is a zone in the city or town where you can have a boarding facility,” he said. “You need that local license but after that you don’t need anything, I mean here, because of lack of enforcement, no one ever questioned if the boarding facility in Ollie’s case even had a kennel license.”
MSPCA Senior Animal Protection Researcher Melissa Ekvall said lack of regulations leads to negative scenarios where pets get hurt. She said dog fights could occur because there are no rules around boarding small dogs with larger ones, staff may not be properly trained to break up fights, and conditions can vary from facility to facility.
Ekvall said lawmakers need to look at passing a law that addresses dog to staff ratios and inspections, at the very least.
“Stuff that you would see at a child day care,” she said. “They’re basically your children, some people, they are their children. And so, you just want them protected and you want the staff protected too.”
With “Ollie’s Law” running into a wall this session, Baxter is hoping that lawmakers will take a hard look at the two other bills the coalition is pushing.
“There have been 16 deaths since Ollie. This has to stop. And as far as I’m concerned, we’ve made a lot of noise, we have made people aware of this,” she said. “So when the maulings continue, it’s as much on the State House as it is on the kennel owner.”