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Cows, jaywalking pets and other critters could win added legal rights

March 07, 2009|Eric Bailey and Patrick McGreevy

SACRAMENTO — Errant motorists beware: Puppy hit-and-run could soon be a crime.

Pushing animal rights in a new direction, a state lawmaker has proposed slapping California motorists with a fine and possible jail time if they flee after hitting a jaywalking dog, cat or any other pet or farm animal.

The measure by Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park) would require that drivers attempt to provide aid to an injured critter and notify the owner or animal-control authorities.

It's one of a herd of bills in the Legislature that could test the boundaries of what constitutes humane treatment of animals in California.

In the aftermath of a big victory for Proposition 2, the November ballot measure that made groundbreaking changes in the confinement of farm animals, state lawmakers from both parties are pushing changes affecting Fido, felines and even flocks of geese.

One lawmaker wants to crack down on dog fightingmeasure. Another proposes a ban on docking the tails of dairy cows. A Republican hopes to make animal adoption fees tax deductible. Democrats want to curb puppy mills and and make it illegal to let a cat older than 6 months run free unless it is spayed or neutered.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) is pushing anew onto turf already plowed by Proposition 2, that supermarket eggs imported from out of state be from cage-free hens only.

Not all proposals would protect members of the animal kingdom. Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) is more concerned about bird flocks bringing down big commercial jets.

Nearly two months after a US Airways jetliner ditched in New York's Hudson River following an encounter with Canadian geese, Cox has introduced a bill giving airports a green light to kill birds that pose a hazard.

Animal rights groups are taking aim at his proposal. Audubon California wants it to exempt endangered species and explicitly make the use of lethal force a last resort. And some activists don't want killing allowed at all.

"More people die per year from being struck by lightning than by birds interfering with planes," said Pamelyn Ferdin, co-president of the Animal Defense League. "Why don't we outlaw airplanes that kill geese? Weren't the geese here first?"

Eng's bill to add animal hit-and-run penalties to California's vehicle code also faces questions.

The assemblyman said he wrote the bill out of respect for the central role pets can play in family life, noting that he got the idea from a constituent who lost a beloved family dog.

He said he hopes to "start a dialogue" and set a precedent, alerting drivers that they bear responsibility for aiding an animal they've hit.

New York has a similar law, as do Germany and Singapore.

Eng finds it troubling that California makes it a misdemeanor to flee an accident involving property loss -- a dented fender, a crushed mailbox, a crumpled planter box -- but there is no law against a hit-and-run involving a pet.

"You can wantonly hit an animal and leave and face no consequences," Eng said. "An inanimate object has more rights."

Jennifer Fearing, a lobbyist in Sacramento for the Humane Society of the United States, said the measure has the potential to address what seems a gap in the law -- and public awareness.

"We all know to call 911 if a human is in distress," she noted. "But many of us don't know what to do if we hit an animal."

Animal control officers are taking a wait-and-see approach to the measure.

"In theory, it makes a lot of sense to let people know they have an obligation when they hit an animal," said Jon Cicirelli of the California Animal Control Directors Assn.

"But in practice it can be pretty problematic." There is potential danger, Cicirelli said, noting that injured animals can turn on people who try to help, reacting in the only way they know how -- by biting or clawing.

And, he said, should a motorist be held accountable for hit-and-run on a feral cat that wanders into the road? What about a cow that is hit after escaping onto a remote highway through a tattered fence its owner should have patched?

Eng said he's open to a conversation on such issues. He just wants to see fewer pets suffer on the roadside and fewer families experience loss.

"It's as simple as calling animal control on a cellphone and saying, 'I hit this dog.' "

--

eric.bailey@latimes.com

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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