Two years ago, Lincoln County spent $67,400 on 10 months' care of 53 poodles, six donkeys, 60 parakeets and three canaries that were part of a criminal case involving a suspected puppy mill.
Five years ago, Missoula County paid $18,000 to board three horses that were evidence in an animal cruelty case. The case was appealed all the way to the Montana Supreme Court, where the owner lost and was ordered to repay the county. That never happened.
Six years ago, Lewis and Clark County had 161 malnourished malamutes dropped off at their shelter in an animal cruelty case that lasted for 14 months and also was heard by the Montana Supreme Court. Providing care for the dogs, and another 40-plus puppies they bore — many of the dogs were pregnant when they arrived at the shelter — cost between $600,000 and $700,000.
None of the owners covered the cost of care for their animals during the time they were held as evidence in a criminal proceeding, but legislation expected to be proposed during the 2019 Legislature offers to change that.
The Montana Association of Counties recently passed a resolution to take another run at the Montana Cost of Care Act, which would shift the burden of paying for confiscated pets’ care from taxpayers to the pets’ owners by forcing them — only in some cases, and only after a request by prosecutors — to post a bond to cover their care.
The legislation is expected to be similar to that in 36 other states, including Idaho and Texas. It wouldn’t expand law enforcement’s authority to confiscate livestock or animals, and wouldn’t apply to cattle, sheep or swine. If the pet owner posts a bond for the animals’ care and is found not guilty, the full bond and animal would be returned to the owner. If the owner can’t put up a bond, the seized animals could be forfeited after a legal hearing, and given to foster care or adopted.
“The three racehorses were being kept in a trailer without enough space to move around; it was a mare and two stallions. They weren’t being cared for, were dehydrated and standing in their own feces,” said Shannon Therriault, Missoula County’s director of environmental health. “Our shelter doesn’t have the ability to care for them, so we had to ship them out.”
The anticipated legislation is similar to a bill introduced during the 2015 session by Democratic Sen. Tom Facey of Missoula. It failed on a 30-20 vote, due in a large part to opposition by the Montana Stockgrowers Association, according to Facey.
“They were against the bill because of the national animal rights people … who are against cattle ranching supported it, and the stockgrowers were convinced this bill was the first step — the camel’s nose under the tent — to outlaw cattle raising in Montana,” Facey said.
An attempt to pass a similar bill in 2017, carried by Republican Sen. Nels Swandal of Wilsall, also died. Once again, opponents were concerned the bill would affect livestock operations, as well as a person’s right to due process.
“Animal care is the No. 1 priority for us because that’s our business,” said Jay Bodner, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. “The previous legislation did focus on cases with dogs and horses, and we recognize the costs. But part of our concern was they did have exemptions for livestock — I think cattle, sheep, pigs, hogs — but there were concerns exemptions could be removed.”
He also voiced concerned about due process, which even some of the bills’ proponents agree is troublesome.
“Those animals that are confiscated could be sold prior to conviction,” Bodner said. “We tried to reach out to counties with the previous legislation, maybe to put in place amendments to push those cases to the front so they get heard more quickly, but that didn’t seem to go anywhere.”
Gina Wiest, executive director of the Lewis and Clark Humane Society, agrees that under the legal system, people are innocent until proven guilty. But in all three of the recent major cases, the pet owners were found guilty of animal cruelty, even after creating delays during their trials that stretched the proceedings out for months — incurring more costs to the shelters.
Wiest’s shelter took care of the 200-plus malamutes for 14 months before they were able to be adopted to homes through the Alaska Malamute Assistance League and Humane Society of the United States. The HSUS assumed 99 percent of the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to feed and care for the dogs, but both Lewis and Clark and Jefferson counties still paid a price.
“Jefferson County paid in the neighborhood of $30,000 to $40,000 in various things that needed to be reimbursed for us,” Wiest said. “It also took place during our biggest giving time of the year, and everyone donated to the malamutes, so any donations would go toward that bill. Unfortunately, that ended up being about $75,000 less for the [local] humane society that year.”
Jeff Darrah, the Missoula County animal control supervisor, said large counties usually end up covering the tab for taking care of animals held for legal cases. He recalled two pit bulls that were seized in an animal cruelty case; they had been locked in a trailer for more than a week. Once in custody, the female had nine puppies.
“That’s 11 dogs a day for nine months, and we charge $10 per day for board here,” Darrah said. “Then you add the vet bills, and we had over $10,000 in costs.”
That’s a lot of money for smaller counties. Wiest believes that prompts law enforcement in some communities to look the other way, since they can’t afford to take care of the pets.
“It’s so difficult to have live evidence and wait for the court cases to run their course,” Wiest said.
Darrah said posting the bond isn’t a way to keep people from fighting the charges, but merely making the pet owners pay for their animals’ care.
Bodner wants to work with legislators toward crafting a bill that would protect animals’ welfare and get passed this session, but he added that it will be a challenge.
“I was anticipating that after the '17 session we would see something like this again,” he said. “I just haven’t had the opportunity to visit with folks to try to come up with something that might pass. A lot of work needs to be done.”