July 1, 2002 – A Dark Day for Breed Rescuers?
SB 260 has been passed and will go into effect on July 1st. There will be a "phase-in" period for the next 6 months as the Dept. of Agriculture collects data and builds a database of individual rescuers and rescue groups who will be required to register as such. SB 260 will not have nearly as negative an impact on breed rescuers as many may have heard. There certainly does not seem to be a reason to panic.
A big misconception has been that the law was originally intended to target "collectors," when in fact this does not seem to be the case AT ALL. If there was ever such an intent, it was very subtle. SB 260 has many inconsistencies and there is open admission from the Dept. of Agriculture that a lot of clarification is still needed. So, how this law will be applied to rescue groups and foster care providers is still in question.
The intent was to "correct" existing law. The main "correction" is that privately-run animal shelters (SPCAs and humane society shelters who are not operating a municipal facility) and private rescue groups and foster care providers are now included in the law, as follows:
1) private shelters and groups can now legally take in stray animals
2) residential foster care of animals is now legal
It appears that ALL ALONG private shelters and rescuers were operating "illegally" if we took in strays and/or fostered animals. Many private SPCA and humane society shelters have had home foster care programs for years. Note that there was NO ENFORCEMENT either - that's why most of us had NO IDEA we were doing anything wrong.
The original intent of the bill was that owners whose lost pets ended up in private shelters or rescues couldn't find their pets because of "access problems" (unlisted phones, no addresses, no one knew about the dog). It was a good argument but it did not take into account that most people don't bother to look for their lost pets. There were/are several lawsuits pending against municipalities by a few owners who were unable to find their dogs or get their dogs back from private organizations and individuals. Municipalities are afraid to possibly have legal liability for such problems. It seems to me that this fear of accountability may very well be a good starting point for us to work on cleaning up our local municipal pounds. One would probably agree that most people who find a stray animal don't really want to turn it into animal control because of the conditions and the procedures regarding adoption in many municipal shelters in Virginia. A dog always seems to have a much better chance of not being killed if it goes somewhere else than a county pound. Perhaps we can gain better standing now on continuing to argue for enforcement of the law on MUNICIPAL POUNDS. The new law expects private shelters, rescue groups and foster care providers to be held to the same legal standard as pounds. If the law is not being enforced on the municipal facilities, it doesn't seem to have much credibility for targeting private groups and people.
Strays can now legally be taken directly into rescue BUT we will have to comply with the law and let the municipal pounds in our "service area" know if we have taken in a stray. Under SB 260, we are required to post information and a description of the animal, have "reasonable hours" for the public to come and look at the animal, and post contact information - a PO Box is sufficient, an e-mail address is sufficient. Many ACOs, if asked, will keep telephone contact information confidential and call us, rather than give our phone numbers out to the public. How these requirements will be handled is still not completely clear. How many of us have ever tried to look up our local municipal dog pound in the phone book? Some counties list the Sheriff’s Department as the phone number and no physical address is listed. Messages left with the sheriff’s dispatch are often not returned. "Reasonable hours" in many localities, as defined by the Dept. of Agriculture, can be as few as three or four hours a WEEK. Some municipal pounds will not allow anyone to even see dogs unless an Animal Control Officer is present. If one arrives at the pound and the ACO is out on a call, the pound might be closed even though it is during their "regular hours." Thus, it would appear that as the State Vets define "reasonable hours," private rescue groups have no worries about being required to do anything differently. Remember, all of this only applies when a rescuer takes in a STRAY.
The law requires us to respond if someone calls looking for a lost pet. We can arrange to meet the person in a location like at the pound or other public place to avoid having total strangers visit our private homes. To my way of thinking, rescuers may still be best off turning a dog over to a county shelter, letting it be there its required time and then going and pulling the dog after it has satisfied the requirement for strays.
Another concern is that private groups might use municipal pounds as a "model" since requirements for providing contact information, keeping reasonable hours and maintaining standards of care are still very loosely defined or not enforced by the State Vet’s office for municipal facilities. Therefore, we have real potential to use this to work on improving conditions and compliance at our local municipal pounds. We need to be cautious about the possibility for undesirable rescue organizations to set themselves up legally by registering with the Dept. of Agriculture. Legal registration cannot become the criteria for reputability.
We can rest easier even with SB 260 in the following ways:
1) The law is mostly directed towards shelters, groups and people who take STRAY ANIMALS. If we pull a dog from a shelter (either a county pound or an SPCA or humane society-run shelter that also is the municipal facility) after the dog has been in the pound its required time, that dog is no longer considered "stray." Depending on the shelter involved, we're either adopting the animal (ownership is being transferred to us personally) or the shelter is transferring the animal to us (ownership is transferred to the rescue group or individual rescuer or foster care provider). So, we must work closely with the shelters who cooperate with us to make sure we do their paperwork and fulfill their requirements. The "stray" designation is removed once a dog has spent its required time in the shelter. NOTE: OWNER-SURRENDERED PETS ARE NOT STRAYS. If we have a relinquishment form signed, the owner has transferred ownership to us.
2) The requirement to register and pay a fee ($100 for a rescue group, $25 for a foster home) is for shelters, groups or foster providers who take in MORE THAN 6 ANIMALS PER YEAR. As a private individual working in breed rescue, I can only foster one dog at a time and usually have that dog 2 months or more before it gets adopted. Sometimes there is a break in between one foster dog and the next foster dog. So, I don't actually FOSTER more than 6 dogs per year. I don’t feel I can do a good job fostering more than one dog at a time, nor do I feel it is fair to my own dogs to take in any more than one at a time. Is it accurate to assume that most people who foster for a breed rescue group are in a similar situation? The issue of a number limit is disturbing as none of us want to be in the position to turn down a dog who is on death row at a pound because we’ve already fostered our maximum of six that year. However, this numeric limit may help reduce the number of rescue groups or individuals who warehouse large numbers of animals and the law will hold them to a standard of care. We will have the right to call the attention of the State Vet to such "rescue" warehouses. I would like to see the maximum number increased but for now, it's not the worst thing in the world for those of us who are doing residential foster care on a relatively small scale.
3) If I pull a dog and send it to another foster home, that dog doesn't count against my limit of 6 dogs/yr. The key will be to continue to have strong foster care networks and spread the foster dogs around so no one person ends up doing all the fostering and going over the 6-dog limit. An "adoption coordinator" (or, another expression I’ve heard, "marriage broker") doesn't have to register because they are not actually doing foster care. We can still act as go-betweens matching as many dogs as we can to new owners.
4) For rescuers/foster care providers associated with national breed clubs or out of state groups, they will have to register as a foster home in Virginia but only if they are physically fostering more than 6 dogs/yr in Virginia. Out of state or national breed clubs or rescue groups will not have to be registered in VA. Over-nighting dogs, transporting dogs or temporarily keeping a dog while it is in transit to another rescue group, rescuer or foster home will not count as one of my 6 because I am not actually "taking ownership" of the dog.
5) On the issue of required inspections – there is a lot of uproar about this. If we register as a rescue group or a foster home, this does not mean we will be automatically subject to inspections. The State Vet will have the right to inspect my premises but will probably never do so unless there are complaints about the way I am keeping dogs. Since I keep my foster dogs in my household as one of my own dogs, this is not likely to happen. There are some constitutional problems, as well as conflicts with other sections of the Code of Virginia, that will be corrected before anyone is going to appear at our doorsteps without a warrant and demand we submit to an inspection. Meanwhile, I do not see a reason to be frightened at the prospect of being inspected. We all should be aware of what constitutes appropriate foster care, an appropriate foster home environment and a responsible foster care provider whose dogs don’t disturb the neighbors.
6) It is perfectly acceptable to have any shelters we work with do home inspections and approve us as a foster home for dogs they transfer to us. We can become a particular breed’s foster home on behalf of a shelter or several shelters. The state will view this as being under the auspices of the shelter. The definition of a foster home is broad - "for the purpose of providing sanctuary and finding an adoptive home." Screening adopters and doing the adoptions is something the law sees as fine for a foster home provider to do. Some shelters might use SB 260 as an excuse to continue not working with rescuers. They’ll claim they "don’t have time" to develop a foster care program because they'll be need to inspect and approve foster homes. Frankly, more care should be taken than in the past before an individual can become a foster care provider. Self-monitoring and self-assessment is not necessarily a bad thing.
Rescuers should be aware that animal control, another rescue group, a shelter, humane society or a humane investigator can request ("for good cause" - pretty vague) that the State Vet inspect ANYONE who is doing foster care. For the most part, unless you have managed to really alienate your local ACO, the manager of a local shelter, another rescue group, or your County’s humane investigator (if there is one), you'll be fine. Keeping a low profile and trying to get along with everyone will be helpful!
There is a group to discuss this bill: firstname.lastname@example.org - to join, send email to email@example.com. The list will stay right on top of anything going on regarding the moves to amend SB 260.
Please do not have any undue concern about continuing to foster care dogs for rescue. We might finally have ammunition to make some needed changes. After all, they can't legislate us and then tell us we have no say in anything. It may be our best chance yet to finally get the municipal and private shelters in this state cleaned up and standards enforced where they need to be. I don't see the State Vets doing any better trying to enforce SB 260 than they've ever done enforcing anything else. So I surely am not losing sleep over it and will not stop rescuing, fostering, networking to get dogs into foster care, marriage brokering, etc. I hope the attention SB 260 calls to breed rescue will encourage us all to become more aware of one another and possibly find ways to work together as a credible, cohesive interest group to improve shelter conditions for all animals and garner the support of town and county government to end the political attitude, "we’re not in the adoption business." I believe SB 260 finally gives us legal standing to push for change, as long as we keep our wits about us and make sure our own house is clean.
There are a LOT of problems with the law as it was passed. Amendment is needed. But for now, I can live with it.
3003 Happy Hollow Road
Blacksburg, VA 24060