N.J. lawmakers want animal-abuse offenders put on a list

Sixty-six dogs were rescued earlier this year after being kept, scarred, and sometimes stacked in crates for several months as part of a multistate dogfighting ring.

The six South Jersey residents charged this month with abusing the animals - Justin Love, Anthony "Monte" Gaines, Lydell Harris, Mario Atkinson, Frank Nichols, and Tiffany Burt - each face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

But new legislation could add another punishment to their dockets. The six could be among the first members of a potential public registry of animal abusers in the state.

Should legislators pass bills under discussion in both the Senate and Assembly, New Jersey could become the second state to provide a public listing of offenders convicted of mistreating animals.

The proposed registry would include offenders found civilly liable for animal cruelty violations as well as those convicted of criminal charges.

The New Jersey SPCA already maintains a database of 36,000 individuals accused of civil and criminal animal-cruelty violations, including offenders who have been cleared, but the listing is not publicly available.

Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D., Burlington) introduced the bill in March in the Assembly, where it received a favorable vote in committee and could be scheduled soon for a floor vote. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D. Gloucester) introduced the bill in the Senate last month, and it has been sent to committee.

Several other states, including New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, have considered but not enacted similar legislation.

Singleton said the registry bill comes in conjunction with another he has proposed: "Moose's Law," which would prohibit people convicted of animal-cruelty offenses from owning pets and working in animal-related fields.

Inspired by the 2012 death of Moose, a chocolate lab stolen and then left in a hot car, "Moose's Law" has passed previously, but Gov. Christie did not sign it when it landed on his desk in January 2014.

For Singleton, the legislation has an immediate connection - Moose died in his district. He said the two measures are both individually crucial and complementary.

"Any time that we're looking at abuse, and trying to curb abuse of animals, we need to exhaust every means possible," Singleton said.

The first public animal-abuser registry, created in Tennessee in January, has already seen success, according to animal shelter officials in the state. Celina Batlle, the president of Tennessee's SPCA, said that since the legislation was passed, incidents of animal abuse have "decreased tremendously."

The registry, she said, has inspired both law enforcement officers and the public to more carefully consider animal rights.

"People are more concerned," Batlle said. "Before, it was like, 'It's just a dog.' Now it's taken more seriously."

Laura Chavarria, director of the Williamson County Animal Center in Franklin, Tenn., said the registry has been a powerful tool in the shelter's adoption process.

Still, some New Jersey officials express caution about the proposal.

Steven Shatkin, president of the New Jersey SPCA, supports the creation of a public registry, but said the listing would need to be executed in a "common-sense" way.

"There are different degrees of abuse. There are offenders who intentionally kill or torture animals, or who are engaged in dogfighting. On the other end of the spectrum, there are pet owners who have an inadequate doghouse," Shatkin said. "We wouldn't want to paint both types of offenders with the same brush."

Shatkin said it might be best to evaluate whether to include each offender in such a registry on a case-by-case basis.

Ed Wengryn, a research associate for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, said such a listing should only include offenders convicted of criminal charges, not those held civilly liable.

"If you can't bring a criminal charge for the activity they've done, it can't be that serious that for the next few years or for the rest of their lives, they're tagged with that," Wengryn said.

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