One of the most high profile pieces of legislation moving through the New Hampshire Statehouse right now isn’t Medicaid expansion, or a gun bill, or potential repeal of the death penalty.
It’s about animals.
On Wednesday, the New Hampshire House is scheduled to vote on a bill that seeks to prevent animal cruelty. The proposal is dividing lawmakers and pet lovers across the state.
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In Bill Boyd’s backyard in Merrimack, you’ll find Ice and Asic, and Adidas and Chuck, and Merlin, and a whole bunch of others.
“And then right over here, the patriarch of the kennel, that’s Twister,” says Boyd, pointing at one of his German Shorthaired Pointers.
Boyd has 27 sled dogs that he and his wife and daughter mush in the winter. They let out quite a howl when visitors enter the yard, but are otherwise quiet and attentive.
You’ve likely heard about another New Hampshire resident with a lot of dogs: last summer, the animal abuse case of Christina Fay, a Wolfeboro dog breeder arrested for mistreating her 84 Great Danes, made international headlines.
In the wake of Wolfeboro and several other high profile animal cruelty cases, the New Hampshire legislature began debating changes to the state’s animal cruelty laws.
One of the new rules centers on who qualifies as a commercial kennel. Right now, anyone who sells 10 litters or 50 or more individual puppies in a 12 month period meets the threshold, subjecting them to state oversight and inspection.
Under Senate Bill 569, which easily cleared the upper chamber earlier this session, the definition would also include anyone who keeps seven or more unspayed female dogs for the purposes of selling their offspring.
This change brings New Hampshire statute more in line with other states, including Maine.
Bill Boyd has eight unspayed females. Though he doesn’t sell their puppies, he doesn’t like the proposal.
“I have an issue with being singled out like that...because we have “X” number of dogs, it’s automatically the assumption is being made that I have a commercial operation here, which is furthest from the truth,” says Boyd.
Boyd is one of many so-called hobby breeders who have come out in force against SB569 as it works its way through the House.
Many hobby breeders are backing an amendment crafted by the House Environment and Agriculture Committee that would make major changes to the version passed by the Senate, including exemptions for the new commercial kennel rule.
Under the amendment, breeders who raise dogs that mush, herd livestock, hunt, or participate in certain competitions, along with other breeders, wouldn’t be subject to the new rules.
“The idea was to separate hobby breeders from people who were basically in the business of selling dogs. Breeding for the purpose of vending if you will,” says Representative Paula Francese, an Exeter lawmaker who sits on the committee.
The House amendment also includes a definition of animal hoarding, which would make keeping more animals than you can adequately care for a crime.
To Senator Jeb Bradley, who represents Wolfeboro and sponsored the original Senate bill, that’s a big mistake. He sees it as criminalizing a mental illness, and unnecessary since inadequately caring for animals is already a crime.
He also opposes the commercial kennel exemptions.
“Unfortunately, not only is a not a step forward to protect animals, which I think the vast majority of people want to do in New Hampshire - I’ve gotten more email on this bill, than probably anything else in this Session - so not only does it gut the new protections, but it undermines existing law.”
Bradley adds that when “most people in New Hampshire understand what has happened with this bill, they are going to be outraged.”
One of his loudest complaints about the amendment is that it also strips away his plan for how to pay for these cases.
Under current law, the cost of caring for animals while their owners are on trial falls on either the town or animal rescue facilities.
The Senate bill creates a procedure that lets a judge determine how much the defendant should have to chip in.
“We don’t believe the taxpayers that are law abiding, good animal owners, should be paying for the costs of caring for these animals because of the actions of someone else,” says Lindsay Hamrick, state director for the Humane Society of the United States, which worked with Bradley on crafting the bill.
The amendment strips away this section, with backers citing due process concerns. As written, if the defendant doesn’t pay the bond ordered by a judge, the pets could be put up for adoption before the owner is found guilty of animal cruelty.
“Where does it say in the Bill of Rights that you are guilty until proven innocent?” asks Bill Boyd.
While the dog musher has testified at the Statehouse in opposition to the Senate bill, he seems more comfortable slopping around in the yard with his pups.
He wants to see the state take steps to prevent future cruelty cases like the one in Wolfeboro, but Boyd acknowledges there is no consensus yet on how best to do that.
“At the end of the day, there are no easy answers for this,” he says, dogs yapping in the background. “No law is perfect. No legislation is perfect.”