AUGUSTA — State Rep. Donna Bailey, D-Saco, is proposing legislation that would give animals court representation in abuse cases.

The bill, L.D. 1442, An Act to Provide for Court-appointed Advocates for Justice in Animal Cruelty Cases, would allow courts to appoint law students or volunteer lawyers to advocate in animal cruelty proceedings.

The bill would make good on Bailey’s campaign promiss to strengthen the state’s animal abuse and neglect laws.

It is modeled after a Connecticut law and is being dubbed “Franky’s Law,” after Franky, a Boston terrior-pug mix who was stolen from his home in Winter Harbor last year and killed. Maine’s Animal Welfare Program receives 500 to 800 complaints every year about animal cruelty.

Nearly 40 people spoke or submitted written testimony at a public hearing in Augusta on Wednesday. The overwhelming majority were in favor of the bill.

Jessica Rubin, assistant clinical professor for the University of Connecticut School of Law and director of the school’s Animal Law Clinic, said in written testimony that she helped implement the Connecticut law. She also created a program that allows students, under supervision, to serve as advocates. The law school trains the advocates and the state’s department of agriculture hosts the list of volunteer advocates, she said.

“I am not aware of any costs or problems that the department has encountered,” Rubin said.

Since the Connecticut law was implemented in October 2016, animal court advocates have been appointed in 44 cases, she said. Advocates typically interview veterinarians and law enforcement personnel, conduct legal research and present recommendations to the court regarding appropriate handling of a case.

Rubin cited a case in which a defendant was charged with animal cruelty for keeping eight pit bulls in poor conditions. The defendant applied for a diversionary program instead of facing trial, and he supported his case with acknowledgement letters from animal charities. The advocate discovered the letters were not authentic and presented the information to the court, which found the defendant ineligible for the diversionary program because of the serious nature of the cruelty, Rubin said.

Rebecca Burder of Cape Neddick said that as a previous resident of Connecticut, she was grateful when the Connecticut Legislature approved Desmond’s law, and was saddened to hear about Franky’s death in Maine last year.

“Many studies and cases have shown a strong correlation between abuse of animals and abuse of women and children,” Burder said. “In addition, as the advocate is a volunteer, it will not affect the state financially. The more cruelty cases that are won will also make future possible abusers think twice.”

Overall, Maine is ranked third nationally among the states with the best animal cruelty protection laws, according to the Maine Federation of Humane Societies. Of animals removed from abusive situations in Maine in 2018, 61 percent of dogs and cats were adopted from animal shelters, 8 percent were eventually reclaimed by their owners, and 13 percent were euthanized, a decrease from 2017’s euthanization rate of 15 percent.

Several people and organizations opposed the legislation.

Gary Anderson of Glenburn, representing the Federation of Maine Dog Clubs and Responsible Dog Owners, said the wording of the bill was vague.

In animal cruelty cases, animal control officers, game wardens, police officers and other animal welfare officials are trained how to bring an incident before a court and advocate for an abused animal. An appointed volunteer advocate may not have the background to be effective, even if they are on an approved list, he said.

“The law as written gives broad powers to such an advocate with no guidelines for practice. Animals are considered property in the structure of the law and the appointment of an advocate may be wrongly inferred as elevating animals to the status of humans,” Anderson said.

Stacey Ober, on behalf of the American Kennel Club, opposed the bill in written testimony. Ober said the club encouraged the Legislature to instead find ways to ensure greater enforcement of current laws against those who harm animals.

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