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Massachusetts proposes animal abuser registry. How would that work?

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Kimberly Roy/Worcester County Sheriff’s Office via AP

(Read caption) In this Jan. 15, 2013 photo from the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office shows, from left, Lt. Thomas Chabot, Sheriff Lew Evangelidis and the department's service dog Nikita, at the Worcester County Jail & House of Correction in West Boylston, Mass. The Worcester County sheriff’s department in central Massachusetts turned to the shelter for help when there wasn’t enough money in the budget to replace its retiring tracking dogs.

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A proposed bill to create an animal abusers registry in the state of Massachusetts have a hearing with legislators Wednesday. 

The bill, titled H. 1385, “would establish an animal abuse registry for individuals convicted of an animal abuse crime and would be accessible only to animal shelters, pet stores and breeders to ensure that listed offenders don’t have access to animals,” the National Anti-Vivisection Society explains.

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“This registry gives shelters and other entities better information on whether or not to place an animal with a certain person,” Scott Heiser, Senior Attorney and Director of Criminal Justice with the Animal League Defense Fund (ALDF) tells The Christian Science Monitor. “It sounds like a sound public policy to us.”

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If an animal shelter, pet store or animal breeder violates the act by not checking the registry before selling or giving away an animal, he or she is subject to at least a $1,000 fine or jail time. Any subsequent offense will be punishable by a minimum fine of $5,000.

“Are there examples of a repeat abuser where a registry would have helped? Absolutely.” Mr. Heiser says. For example, “Of people who are connected to animal hoarding, 90 percent of them will re-offend.”

Law enforcement and animal cruelty organizations have found that after a high profile case of animal hoarding, the offender will pick up and move to a new area where he or she will continue abusive collecting habits. But if we have a registry, Heiser argues, “better decisions are going to be made.”

PETA Cruelty Casework Director Stephanie Bell says that keeping a record of animal abusers would help not only animals, but also humans.

“Such people [who abuse animals] are commonly repeat offenders who pose a threat to all living beings, from dogs and cats to humans,” Ms. Bell says in a phone interview. “An animal abusers registry would help protect the community from people like the ‘Boston Strangler,’ Jeffrey Dahmer, school shooters, and other notorious killers whose first victims were animals.” 

But the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) argues there are other psychological effects of a registry that ought to be considered. 

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“Shaming them with a public Internet profile is unlikely to affect their future behavior – except perhaps to isolate them further from society and promote increased distrust of authority figures trying to help them,” HSUS’s President and CEO Wayne Pacelle explains in a blog post.

Heiser explains the Massachusetts registry would be kept secret from the public, and only accessible to those selling or giving away animals. “This is a good political compromise in response to people who are against a vigilante response to animal abuse,” he says.

And to further alleviate opposition to the bill, each registered abuser will have to pay a $50 annual fee to the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services for the administrative costs of maintaining the registry.

If passed, Massachusetts would follow the lead of at least six counties in New York, which have already passed similar laws. Suffolk County, N.Y. passed the first registry legislation in 2010 and New York City, passed the Animal Abuse Registration Act in 2014. Several states, such as Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania have similar bills pending in the 2015 legislative session.

And according to the ALDF, Massachusetts is already in the "Top Tier" of states for animal protection laws. Better animal protection, whether or not that calls for an abuser registry, is especially needed in Western states such as Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico who rank in ALDF’s Top Five ‘Worse States’ for animal protection.