Law students seek to improve D.C. animal laws

A group of GW Law School students is examining D.C. laws for household and sheltered animals and making recommendations to the city for their improvement.

The Animal Welfare Project, started in 2003 by two GW law professors, has drafted legislation it hopes will be considered by the D.C. City Council in the coming months. The legislation comes after the 40-student pro bono group spent two years reviewing animal laws in D.C. and around the country. The 80-page legislation introduces some new laws and expands on existing laws to better ensure the fair treatment of D.C. animals.

“For many years I have thought the law students here to be exceptionally energetic and talented,” said GW Law School professor Mary Cheh, who worked with fellow law professor Joan Shaffner to create the project.

Shaffner said the group had a simple plan for how to research laws and draft legislation. First the organization collected laws from other cities and states to compare with D.C. laws. The group then compiled its research in a comprehensive report, released in February, describing aspects of the D.C. laws that needed improvement.

D.C. City Councilman David Catania, chairman of the council’s Health Committee, and Gregg Pane, director of the D.C. Department of Health, then supported the group’s efforts in drafting legislation to be considered by the D.C. City Council in the coming months.

Shaffner said some of the laws outlined in the legislation are progressive and would be unique to D.C. For example, one provision deals with cross-reporting between animal and human domestic abuse cases; Shaffner said new evidence shows there may be a link between domestic human abuse and domestic animal abuse. The AWP legislation could ultimately ensure safety for pet owners, she said.

Other parts of the legislation are recommendations to improve the current D.C. laws in the three shelters in D.C. that hold 280 animals. One provision would ensure that all regulations on animals are not breed-specific. D.C. laws currently allow shelters and animal control agencies to place different restrictions on animals based on their breed. Shaffner said the practice is unfair and leads to the unnecessary euthanization of animals.

Peggy Keller, chief of animal hygiene in the Department of Health’s animal disease prevention division, said she supports such non-breed-specific regulation.

Keller, who worked with the AWP as an adviser when it was first started three years ago, now works for the city to enforce animal laws. She said she is “absolutely thrilled” to see the progress the project has made.

Shaffner said the AWP hopes to meet with Catania’s office in the coming weeks to come to an agreement between city officials and the group on the language of the final legislation.

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