After long road, Sununu signs anti-animal cruelty bill

Monitor staff
Published: 7/30/2019 4:24:16 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu signed a law Tuesday to strengthen New Hampshire’s anti-animal cruelty statute, taking action after years of attempts and a string of high-profile abuse cases across the state.

Meeting at the Greater Nashua chapter of the New Hampshire Humane Society, which has pushed for the legislation, the governor signed House Bill 459, accompanied by lawmakers and puppies at the shelter.

And he signed a separate law, House Bill 605, adding further penalties to those who have or make animal fighting paraphernalia.

“Together, these two bills build upon the progress made last term in strengthening animal cruelty laws in New Hampshire by reducing costs associated with animal cruelty cases, preventing animal suffering, and protecting them from animal cruelty,” Sununu said.

HB 459 – which will take effect in January – will change up the legal process that kicks in when a person is arrested for animal cruelty.

Under current law, if a person is charged with cruelty, the animals can be “confiscated” by the arresting officer. If the person is ultimately convicted, the animals may be disposed of by the court “in any manner it decides.” In many cases, such as domestic animals, that could mean adoption.

The problem: The court system is not exactly known for its speed, and that can leave animals in limbo for weeks and months. January’s new law creates a 14-day clock after the arrest for the court to hold a “status hearing” to determine the temporary fate of the animals.

The law also allows for anyone owning or co-owning the animals to apply to adopt them temporarily while the trial continues – provided that person is not a defendant or party of interest in the criminal proceedings.

And it gives judges a bigger toolbox to punish those convicted of animal cruelty. People convicted of felony animal cruelty now face a mandatory five-year minimum restriction from possessing or contacting animals, “as necessary.”

The bills come after a string of abuse cases around the state, including the headline-grabbing trial of Christina Fay, convicted of 10 counts of animal cruelty in December 2017.

Fay, a Wolfeboro resident, had kept dozens of Great Danes in her house in squalor; police seized them but four died in Humane Society care despite the rescue.

The law signed Wednesday introduces a new bonding system to address what has become a thorny question in recent years – particularly in the Fay case: who should pay for the treatment of abused animals whose alleged abuser awaits trial.

Under the new law, any owner seeking to appeal their conviction may be required to pay a bond of up to $2,000 per animal to cover the cost of care. If found guilty, they must pay the full and final price incurred to keep the animals. If found not guilty, the court can return the bonds.

That process is a compromise, intended to bridge a gap between what had been a fiercely-fought battle over due process rights last year.

An earlier version would have forced owners to incur the total cost of care to relocate the animals once charged. Some had argued that defendants should not be made to pay for care without conviction; others countered that towns would have to pick up the tab otherwise – a potentially pricey situation.

That version fell flat last year, after House lawmakers stripped away and rewrote broad portions to make it more lenient for dog owners. House and Senate lawmakers couldn’t agree on a final bill.

On Tuesday, one previous skeptic of the past approach, Democratic Rep. Peter Bixby of Dover, cheered on passage of the bill, which he said provided “necessary protections to animals.”

Rep. Amanda Gourge, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Environmental & Agriculture Committee, noted that the committee had “been working on versions of HB 459 for several years.”

“... We are thrilled to have passed it this year,” Gourge said in a statement.

For Sen. Jeb Bradley, who has pushed for an overhaul of New Hampshire’s animal cruelty law for two years, Wednesday’s passage was personal. The Republican senator hails from Wolfeboro, which incurred $1.7 million in expenses in the aftermath of the Fay arrest.

Those costs were a burden to property-rich Wolfeboro; they could have decimated the finances of a less fortunate town, Bradley has noted.

“I am glad that we have strengthened our cost of care laws to better protect taxpayers from runaway costs of unscrupulous breeders, while protecting animals from abuse,” the senator said in a statement.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at, 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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