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Sunshine Week: Accessing animal cruelty data no easy task in N.H.

  • A neglected cat is cared for at the Pope Memorial SPCA of Merrimack County in Concord last month. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file



Monitor staff
Friday, March 17, 2017

As animal cruelty cases grow opaque on the federal level, New Hampshire continues to struggle with bringing visibility to mistreated animals. 

Following a decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove Animal Welfare Act reports in February, access to information on federally licensed facilities exhibiting, selling or caring for animals in New Hampshire – some of which is now reposted – is limited.

In addition, no statewide database for animal cruelty cases exists and legislation to create one was killed in the legislature this year. Transparency is a systematic challenge when it comes to tracking mistreated animals in the Granite State.

“It’s very individual to the town,” said Lindsay Hamrick, New Hampshire director for the Humane Society of the United States. “There isn’t any great system, which is part of the issue.”

Hamrick said it comes down to local law enforcement to keep an eye on cases.

Cases like the 30 cats removed from a Barnstead property after police executed a search warrant there in February, or when Deering police arrested two South Carolina women and charged them with animal cruelty for selling sick puppies to local residents in 2015.

There have been multiple instances of horses – underfed and neglected – being rescued and taken to Live and Let Live Farm in Chichester, too.

Hamrick said livestock or dogs kept outside without adequate shelter, animals becoming neglected as a result of an owner having financial or medical problems, and hoarding appear to be the biggest animal welfare concerns in New Hampshire.

“It’s hard to know without data, but anecdotally we’re probably right on par with the states around us,” Hamrick said.

There are some efforts in the beginning stages of improving animal welfare tracking in New Hampshire. Hamrick said that after the FBI started documenting animal cruelty in 2016 – with the expectation that it may be a precursor to other crimes – she hopes New Hampshire police will use the database to record charges and prosecution.

“They’ve been given the direction to start doing that,” she said.

Hamrick also attends meetings with the Governor’s Commission on the Humane Treatment of Animals, which was started in 2006. Re-established in 2016, Hamrick said the commission is aware of the database issue.

“The conversations are continuing on, how do we get a handle on tracking?” she said.

One type of tracking bill was introduced at the State House in January to create a registry for people convicted of animal cruelty. It has since been deemed “inexpedient to legislate” by the House Committee on Environment and Agriculture.

Committee chairman Rep. John O’Connor said the proposed registry presented an issue given there’s no national animal abuse registry. So anyone with animal cruelty convictions from out of state would be required to register if they visited New Hampshire for longer than 10 days.

“They would have to report in the county they were staying, to the sheriff,” O’Connor said.

In addition, he said, animal cruelty is already covered under existing state laws that give local law enforcement authority. The statute, first approved in the 1980’s, covers everything from neglect and abuse to exhibition animal fights, to the use of animals at fairs and in science classes, and bestiality.

“(We) don’t see a need for this control right now because there’s enough in there to handle it right it now,” O’Connor said.

The Humane Society of the United States was neutral on the bill, feeling that, if enacted, it might include too wide a range of individuals and provide too much private information to the public, Hamrick said.

“We do need a better way to track all these cases, but that should really be in the realm of law enforcement,” she said.

Public data?

Some databases track elements of animal welfare, but they aren’t easily accessible to the public.

The New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food, for instance, oversees the licensing and inspection of pet shops, commercial kennels (10 or more litters or 50 or more puppies in a year), animal shelters and animal rescue groups.

Upon their annual inspection, if a pet shop or animal rescue is in violation of state regulation standards, state officials will oversee compliance, state veterinarian Steve Crawford said. If it rises to the criminal level, the issue is then referred to police.

Crawford said there are currently 255 of these entities with a file on record with New Hampshire’s agriculture department. While those files are individually accessible by the public, Crawford said he was unsure about the public viewing all of them in a database.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever been asked,” he said. Crawford said he has been in consultation with legal counsel over what could be released and what needed to be redacted.

The state’s federal agriculture counterpart, the USDA, has been assessing which portions of animal welfare records should be on its public database, too.

The agency took down all of its Animal Welfare Act inspection and annual reports in February to “review records and determine which information is appropriate for reposting.” It immediately faced backlash from animal welfare groups, journalism organizations and investigators, who use those records to hold federally licensed exhibitors, research facilities, commercial animal dealers and transporters accountable.

Hamrick said the Humane Society was among those to push back on the USDA’s decision.

“Because the USDA has oversight over puppy mills and large operations ... we do think it should be available to the public,” she said.

The USDA has since put up reports in batches. They show, for instance, that Polar Caves Park in Rumney had several non-compliance issues in 2014 and 2015 in its fallow deer enclosure. These included a hole in an enclosure fence, too much excrement in the deer shed and a lack of a formalized veterinary care plan.

A 2016 inspection report for Polar Caves Park showed no violations.

What information isn’t on the USDA Animal Welfare Act database can be requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). That’s how the animal activist group Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! found out that 13 voles died from dehydration in a Dartmouth research lab.

An article in the college’s newspaper, The Dartmouth, indicates that Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! found out about the voles through emails between Dartmouth and the National Institutes of Health, which the activist group acquired by FOIA request.

Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!, according to The Dartmouth, has since filed an animal abuse complaint with the USDA. The college, in the meantime, said it has taken corrective action to prevent similar vole deaths in the future.

Editor’s note: This story originally attributed a USDA Animal Welfare Act non-compliance report for dolphin housing at Story Land. While the inspection report showed “Story Land” at the top of the page, it appears the violation was actually committed by Miami Seaquarium at its ‘Dolphin Harbor.’ Both the New Hampshire and Florida parks are operated by the same parent company.