Animal Rights

Virginia Can Do More to Improve Animal Welfare

The state legislature is considering a number of measures, but none that deal with police officers killing dogs.


"If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog," goes an old saying mistakenly attributed to Harry S. Truman. In fact, Truman once gave away a cocker spaniel puppy that had been given to him, earning him the enmity of dog-lovers across the country.

Lawmakers in Virginia will face a slightly different test of their sympathies this year when the General Assembly takes up numerous animal-welfare bills.

Among them is a measure (SB 28) proposed by Republican state Sen. Bill Stanley, which would prohibit giving state funds to any organization that conducts "medically unnecessary" research on animals that causes "significant pain or distress." The bill was prompted by revelations about experiments at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center that induced heart attacks in dogs and puppies and forced them to run on treadmills.

"Some of the experiments are known to inflict severe pain in the dogs and puppies—some are as young as 6 months—while withholding pain relief," a Times-Dispatch story reported in October.

Stanley also has introduced SB 32, which would create a state database listing Virginia residents convicted of felony cruelty to animals. The list would be publicly available—and therefore helpful to those who offer rescued animals for adoption. Republican Sen. Richard Stuart has introduced the same measure under a different bill number, SB 212.

Democratic Del. John Bell is introducing a measure (HB 646) to restrict tethering—i.e., tying a dog up outside. Last year Bell introduced a broader measure that was killed in subcommittee on a voice vote, after some frankly ludicrous objections (e.g., what about sled dogs?).

This year's more narrowly tailored bill prohibits leaving animals tethered during freezing or dangerously hot weather, when the owner is off the property, and at night—and it makes exceptions for work animals. It also prohibits certain types of tethers, such as those that are too short, or heavy chains.

As one animal-welfare advocate pointed out, this still lets owners leave animals penned up in small enclosures such as chain-link cages, exposed to bitter cold or punishing heat. But it's a step forward—the modest sort of step most likely to pass a legislature that prefers incremental change to the radical kind.

Democratic Del. Mark Levine has introduced HB 425, which forbids people convicted of animal cruelty to own companion animals, and requires them to attend anger-management or similar treatment unless a court finds they no longer present a danger to animals or to others.

Another measure (HB 593), introduced by Del. Wendy Gooditis, creates a felony offense when someone who has been convicted of animal cruelty in the past five years kills a horse through cruelty or malicious neglect.

Other measures address the business end of animal welfare. For instance, Democratic Del. Jennifer Boysko has introduced HB 270, which lets localities prevent pet shops from selling animals from breeders. Democratic Del. Dawn Adams (who beat Manoli Loupassi in the 68th District and who will become the state's first openly lesbian delegate) has introduced HB 713, which prohibits commercial dog breeders from keeping dogs in cages with exposed wire floors. A couple of measures (HB 79 and HB 94) require boarding establishments to ensure that an employee is present during group play.

There are still other measures—such as ones forbidding dogs from riding on your lap while you drive (SB 97) and allowing pets in wineries (HB 286). Space prevents an exhaustive recitation of them all, but animal-welfare groups such as the SPCA will be happy to give you a rundown. The ones mentioned above, however, probably qualify as the most important.

It's worth noting legislators don't often pull ideas for new legislation out of thin air: Most bills are prompted—by a constituent's request, or a news article, or concerns raised by state agencies, the business community, or nonprofits.

That does not make all legislation, ipso facto, worthy of passage: Just because the umbrella industry asks the state to ban ponchos doesn't mean it should. But animal-welfare legislation often is driven by necessity. (For a couple of cases of dogs left out in the recent cold snap, e.g., go to and

If there's one bill missing from the list, it's a measure to address the all-too-richly-documented problem of police officers shooting dogs (as many as 30 a day, by one Department of Justice expert's estimate; in Detroit, just two officers have shot more than 100 between them).

Often, the dogs are merely playful or curious, not aggressive. But fearful officers shoot anyway, because they usually are immune from consequences.

In one case in Henrico five years ago, officers went to a house to notify a family that its son had been killed—and shot the family dog when they arrived.

Police officers have every right to protect themselves. But if ordinary citizens can face consequences for mistreating harmless pets, then those who enforce the law should, too.

They say a dog is man's best friend. It's too bad that often doesn't work the other way around.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.