The New Jersey Animal Cruelty Statute (the “Statute”) has once again been amended.  The amendments, designated as “Patrick’s Law,” were introduced largely in response to the gross mistreatment of Patrick, a pit bull in Newark, who was found in an extremely emaciated condition at an apartment complex in Newark.  Fortunately, Patrick was rescued and successfully treated at Garden State Veterinary Specialists, where GSVS owner, Dr. Scavelli, and GSVS hospital administrator, Mrs. Scavelli, nursed Patrick back to health, and have since been awarded permanent ownership of Patrick.

Patrick’s Law was introduced to increase the degree of crime that can be charged if anyone neglects an animals, similar to the heinous treatment Patrick suffered at the hands of his original owner, and to increase the penalties that can be applied.  The amendments in Patrick’s Law increase both criminal and civil penalties to those convicted or found civilly liable of animal cruelty for:

“unnecessarily failing to provide a living animal or creature of which the person has charge either as an owner or otherwise with proper food, drink, shelter or protection from the weather.”  (Emphasis added.)

While the amendments were adopted to correct the injustice to Patrick and other similarly situated animals, they make the Statute more confusing, possibly creating new liabilities for anyone who may have temporary charge of an animal, such as animal rescue operators, animal shelters, kennels, temporary or foster care givers, groomers, trainers, and veterinarians.

The law further requires an owner or caretaker to provide for the “necessary care” of an animal, defined as:

“care sufficient to preserve the health and well-being of an animal, and includes, but is not limited to: food of sufficient quantity and quality to allow for normal growth or maintenance of body weight; adequate access to water in sufficient quantity and quality to satisfy the animal’s needs; access to adequate protection from the weather; and veterinary care to alleviate suffering and maintain health.”

There are no specific guidelines to explain what constitutes “necessary care.”  Normally these guidelines would be written, interpreted and implemented by the government agency charged with enforcement of the Statute.  However, there is no government agency so charged in New Jersey.  Furthermore, for the most part, this Statute is enforced by state and county agents of associations for the protection of animals, who have no or insufficient government funding, and are forced to rely on the fines received from accused offenders, to sustain their budgets.  They also lack the training required to diagnose medical conditions in animals.  And while, the State Attorney General and County Prosecutors have the authority to supervise the activities of these quasi-law enforcement agents, they rarely do so.

In addition to not clarifying what constitutes “necessary” veterinary care, the Statute also does not require a veterinarian to determine the condition of an animal allegedly abused, before charges are filed.

The degree of veterinary care needed to maintain an animal’s health, is not as straight forward as you may think.  Even veterinarians disagree about what is required to provide preventive medical care, and the type, quality and quantity of care changes with an animal’s age and specific metabolic condition(s).  For example, there are a number of vaccines that are available for each species, but not all may be indicated or required, for a particular animal, living in a certain part of the country.  If an animal contracts a disease that would likely have been prevented by vaccination (no vaccine is 100% efficacious), is the owner guilty of the failure to provide necessary care?  What about parasitic diseases that can be minimized by preventive treatment?  Or metabolic diseases, such as obesity or diabetes, caused by over or improper feeding?  This list could go on and on.

Without regulations which define what “necessary care” really is, and no requirement for a professional assessment by a veterinarian, the enforcement of this law is extremely subjective.  Patrick’s emaciated condition combined with his owner’s confession of neglect represent one extreme.  However other situations may be more difficult to correctly identify as “animal cruelty,” and with the added uncertainty of who may be held responsible, animal caretakers should be concerned.

Even before this Statute was amended, animal rescue operators in New Jersey have been charged with animal cruelty after sending animals to a foster home, where that animal was not provided with “necessary care,” as determined by an animal control officer, not a veterinarian.  In those cases, each party with some responsibility for the animal, were charged — despite the best efforts of the rescuers to place animals in safe environments.  As it now stands, animal rescuers and shelters are typically already cash-strapped, using what money they raise to pay for the health care and transportation costs of the animals they rescue, not to investigate foster caregivers.  Ironically, by increasing potential liability and related fines, the amendments to this Statute threaten the very existence of organizations intended to save animals from the type of situations the Statute is intended to prevent.

There are numerous organizations and businesses that are potentially at risk under these new amendments to New Jersey’s Animal Cruelty Statute – animal rescue organizations, shelters, pet stores, breeders, groomers, trainers, kennels, etc.  These businesses should review their policies and procedures relating to animals entrusted in their care, with the purpose of employing policies to decrease the risk of liabilities to which they are exposed under this Statute.

As it now stands, the amendments to the Statute do not diminish the concern about animals who suffer severe neglect, like Patrick, nor do they make the Statute more effectuve.  They only create new ambiguities and greater risks for those organizations and businesses that care for animals.