Animal rights activists and law enforcement officials across the state are preparing to begin enforcing one of the most significant animal cruelty laws in nearly 15 years when it goes into effect in Texas on Tuesday.
“This is a testament to the power of humans, because if we didn’t have the great public outcry…these dogs would live two more years chained, with no protection in the extreme elements,” said Jamey Cantrell, past president of the Texas Animal Control Association , the oldest and largest state animal welfare organization in the country.
The bill establishes a basic standard for outdoor animal care and aims to prevent dogs from suffering severe chains and eventually dying in extreme weather conditions.
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The law prohibits tethering a dog outdoors with heavy chains, ill-fitting collars, or anything that “causes the dog pain or injury,” and requires the length of the restraint to be at least five times the dog’s length or ten Foot It more clearly defines an adequate shelter as a structure that protects them from inclement weather and allows them to sit, stand and move comfortably, avoiding their own feces and having access to food and water that are not easy become contaminated.
“This isn’t about over-regulating pet owners; It’s about setting a standard for caring for pets,” said Adam Reynolds, chief of animal cruelty investigations for the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “This law aims to reduce and prevent negligent acts and inhumane treatment of dogs.”
Improperly fitted or heavy chains can cause myriad health problems in a dog and severely affect their mental health.
“It’s no different than a prisoner in solitary confinement,” Cantrell said. “It’s very mentally difficult for a social creature like a dog to get so cooped up that they can’t interact with other animals and they just get to the point where they’re basically going insane.”
Most importantly, the law mandates a 24-hour waiting period, which law enforcement officers were previously required to observe if they saw an animal in inhumane conditions. When the situation calls for it, officials can now step in immediately and save an animal from suffering, rather than issuing owners a 24-hour alert and waiting for them to comply.
“It was a very frustrating situation with the previous law because when you’re an animal control officer…you were basically powerless to enforce the law…it was just crazy, it wasted a lot of time,” Cantrell said.
In Houston, the problem of outdoor dogs living in inappropriate conditions is widespread, Reynolds said.
“This is an issue that is not only prevalent in Harris County, but also in the 10 other counties that we serve,” Reynolds said. “It’s not relevant to a specific part of the city or community, it’s something that’s being addressed throughout the greater Houston area.”
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Reynolds is one of many investigators across the state working to help pet owners understand and comply with the new law. His office has held meetings with the assistant district attorney’s office and a hierarchy of police offices to develop plans for breaking the news.
For Reynolds and countless others, that plan begins with grassroots reconnaissance efforts or knocking on doors and talking to pet owners.
“We want to use education first,” Reynolds said. “And when there is a refusal to obey the law, or when there are repeated violations, our MPs can and will act quickly in those situations as well.”
Harris County Constable Police District 5 corporal Kayla Fesperman said her investigative team will now have flyers on hand about the new law if they come across a pet in need. The county is a founding agency of the Harris County Animal Cruelty Task Force, which responds to cases throughout the Houston area in coordination with several other organizations and law enforcement agencies. Like many animal shelters and law enforcement agencies, they also share the flyers on social media as often as possible.
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“We’ve already spoken to prosecutors and we’re all on board with (what is) going to be our plan of action,” Fesperman said. “It’s an ever-growing and evolving situation and really changes with every call.”
If a pet owner refuses to comply and comply with the law, they could face a Class C misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500. This charge becomes a Class B misdemeanor if an owner has previously been convicted with a fine of up to $2,000 and 180 days in prison. If there is more than one dog, separate citations will be issued.
While the new law affects the use of chains, which Fesperman says will help make a difference, especially with suspected dogfighters who use chains more often, she said it’s important to clarify that the law isn’t a total ban on tethers.
“This doesn’t eliminate the tethers, but it does make it safer when they’re on the tether,” Fesperman said. “I think there’s going to be a big misunderstanding and that’s why we’re working so hard on education.”
The Texas Humane Legislative Network is one of the leading proponents of the new law and has been working with animal control officials statewide to prepare for its implementation, including distributing bilingual factsheets and conducting Zoom webinars with shelter leaders and rescue groups, said Stacy Sutton Kerby, director for Government Relations of the Organization.
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Kerby said she knows some groups who plan to give their communities a 30-day “implementation period,” for example, to give pet owners time to comply with the new standards.
THLN has also worked to compile a list of resources for pet owners who need help with compliance, from neutering and neutering events that offer free tie-down supplies to nonprofits that distribute kennels. Kerby said it’s inspiring to see the massive response from people across the region hoping to get involved and help owners better protect their animals. She encourages Houston residents to get creative in their efforts and suggests hosting fundraisers for local animal shelters or working with your local Boy Scout troop to build kennels to help make a contribution.
“This is a great opportunity to build trust and build relationships with (animal control officials) and with community dog owners by coming together to help people comply rather than just issuing penalties,” Kerby said. “Ultimately we don’t want to see just punishment, we want dogs to have a higher quality of life and to stay with their people and be safe.”
To report animal cruelty, visit the Harris County Animal Cruelty Taskforce website or call 832-927-PAWS or visit the Houston SPCA Animal Cruelty website or call 713-869-7722.