Activists want to rewrite Michigan’s animal welfare laws

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“If we hadn’t responded to this storm in this weather, I don’t think they would have survived,” said Carri Shipaila, who helped dogs abandoned in a snowstorm to get help.

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — A century-old Michigan law continues to impact local animal shelters and rescue groups.

The law – written in 1919 – essentially defines animals as property, complicating response efforts.

A West Michigan animal rights group pointed to a heartbreaking ordeal that unfolded earlier this year as evidence of the need for change.

A cold snowy January day.

The average air temperature in Kent County is close to freezing.

Carri Shipaila’s animal rights group had heard what sounded like a dog barking for days from a backyard in Kentwood.

She called the police and started posting the video on social media after spotting a German Shepherd in a snow-filled wire cage.

“We heard something or thought we heard it and shone the flashlight further into the yard,” Shipaila recalled in a conversation with 13 ON YOUR SIDE later that month.

The beam revealed a second dog, apparently unable to stand.

As the live stream continued, Kentwood Police could be seen moving around in frame.

“If we hadn’t responded to this storm in this weather, I don’t think they would have survived,” Shipaila said. “Ultimately both dogs were removed from the property and delivered to Kent County.”

Where Shipaila assumed German Shepherds would stay until adopted.

“They’re here. They’re safe. Perfect,” she said. “On Monday I hear the dogs have been recovered.”

She wanted an explanation, which she received using the Freedom of Information Act, which appeared to show authorities had been forced to return the dogs to their owners due to a lack of evidence.

“It’s a marathon…it’s something that can take time,” said Scott Dobbins, director of Kent County Animal Control. “Unfortunately, we may have to say that we don’t have enough evidence. Unfortunately, we have to return property, which in this jurisdiction animals are property.

“I’m just disgusted by this, but I’ve come to realize that you can only do what the law says,” Shipaila said. “If you can look at the law any way you like, okay, well, there’s a problem. So maybe the laws need to be clearer, more concise.

Yet clarity isn’t the word that comes to mind when experts describe all of the applicable state and local laws that govern how and how not to care for an animal.

“We take every complaint very seriously,” said Angela Hollinshead, Kent County Animal Shelter Division Manager. “At the end of the day, it really depends on what we are able to apply.”

A routine obstacle, according to Hollinshead.

In part, she says, because the regulations — the so-called Dog Act of 1919 — were drafted even before about half of the 197 breeds registered with the American Kennel Club were recognized.

“Michigan state laws, not specific to coat length or breed of dog, are really, really vague,” Hollinshead said. “What one person feels is considered adequate care, another person can look at that and absolutely not go there…we really depend on the laws to really support us in how we make those decisions.”

Support that relies on specific definitions, according to Hollinshead, simply does not exist.

Lost in translation between changing centuries and the changing role of man’s best friend in society.

Animal welfare is light years ahead of where we were just ten years ago,” she said. “Our laws haven’t really followed that. They have been left in the past… we see animals with frozen ears, frozen feet… it can have really terrible effects on their health.

“Pets can’t talk to you when they’re cold…you, as a responsible owner, have to make sure your pets are safe,” Dobbins added.

Dobbins said his seven animal control officers receive, on average, 3,000 to 4,000 reports a year. Many are complaints from neighbors calling attention to animals living in the elements.

“These increase dramatically with colder temperatures,” he said. “Every winter I get calls from my constituents…people have a big heart for their pets and those of others.”

State Rep. Tommy Brann said it was those phone calls that prompted him to initiate a solution.

House Bill 4784 would update the decades-old law with details not found in the original.

“That’s all I can ask for is to get a committee hearing. I hope to get a vote on that,” Brann said.

The proposal was awaiting a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time of publication.

Back in Kentwood, animal control officers returned several days late and, acting on a search warrant, seized the dogs again, citing video evidence from Shipaila’s livestream.

Not all cases, urge caution, have the power of social media behind them.

“It’s really important that we look at these laws and how we can make them more specific where needed,” Hollinshead said. “Ultimately, his health and well-being are at risk because of this.”

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