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Animal abuse registry pitched in NH as ‘needed tool’; critics fear unintended impacts

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Animal abuse registry pitched in NH as ‘needed tool’; critics fear unintended impacts

Feb 28, 2024 | 5:00 am ET
By Hadley Barndollar
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Animal abuse registry pitched in NH as ‘needed tool’; critics fear unintended impacts
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House Bill 1505 would establish an animal abuse offender registry within the New Hampshire Department of Safety. (Getty Images)

Bjarna O’Brien has come close to only one conviction during her time working as an animal control officer for the Salem Police Department.

She criminally pursued a man for leaving his dogs inside a hot environment on multiple occasions in town. O’Brien would later learn he’d done the same in several other towns, cross-jurisdictional information that wasn’t readily available during her investigation. 

When a judge deferred the man’s conviction so he could instead receive more animal education, he brought his dogs to court that day and left them in the car.

“These kinds of things continue to build and continue to happen,” she said.

O’Brien believes New Hampshire should establish an animal abuse offender registry, a tool to equip law enforcement with the knowledge and collaboration needed to bolster the chance of successful convictions and justice for animals. 

Few places in the U.S. have gone down this path. Tennessee launched the first and only statewide registry in 2017, and a handful of cities and counties have created their own. 

Last week, O’Brien testified passionately in support of House Bill 1505, which is sponsored by her mother, Rep. Katherine Prudhomme-O’Brien, a Republican from Derry. She described a dearth of information for animal control officers outside of their own jurisdictions, and a system where animal cruelty convictions are few and far between – and not because abuse isn’t happening.

“The reality is strongly disheartening,” she said. “Few cruelty cases make it to court and even fewer result in convictions. Moreover, convicted offenders often face minimal consequences and can easily obtain new animals or continue operating in animal-related businesses due to the absence of a centralized public registry.”

As proposed, Prudhomme-O’Brien’s bill would establish an animal abuse offender registry within the Department of Safety, one that would be posted publicly on its website starting Jan. 1, 2026. The registry would include a person’s full legal name, a booking photo, and other identifying data determined necessary by the department.

A person would be removed from the registry two years after the date of their conviction, provided they haven’t been convicted of more animal abuse during that period. If they offend again, their name would remain on the registry for five years.

“Jeff Dahmer started with ‘just’ animals,” Prudhomme-O’Brien told lawmakers while introducing her bill on Feb. 20, alluding to the established link between violence against animals being a potential precursor for violence against humans.

For everyone at the hearing who supported the bill was someone who didn’t. Nancy Holmes, a New Boston resident who has been involved in dog rescue, breeding, and training, feared a public registry would be weaponized, subjecting the people on it to “scrutiny, ridicule, and censure.” 

“For me, the bill really seems to promote cyber bullying rather than the reduction of incidents of animal abuse,” she said. 

New Hampshire State Police Lt. Mary Bonilla said her agency is “very neutral on this matter,” though she raised issues of cost and additional staffing to create and man the database. 

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a national position on animal abuse registries: They do little to protect animals or people, and can have unintended consequences. Instead, the ASPCA believes existing strategies – such as well-enforced no-contact orders, mandated psychological assessments, and inclusion of pets in orders of protection – are more effective.

Lawmakers appear poised to vote “inexpedient to legislate” on HB 1505 when it comes back in front of the House Environment and Agriculture Committee on March 5. But many agreed the challenges faced by animal control officers do need to be addressed by the Legislature. 

NH animal cruelty laws: ‘A lot of loopholes’

Opening up a public hearing on her bill last week, Prudhomme-O’Brien likened her proposal to sex offender registries, a central repository to alert people in a community about individuals convicted of certain crimes. She acknowledged that animal abuse registries face a lot of resistance, and many feel they are “too punitive.” 

“It’s a tool, and I think it’s a needed tool,” she said.

Prudhomme-O’Brien faced questioning from skeptical lawmakers about individuals with mental health issues, concerns about “surveillance,” and the possibility that people may take on vigilante roles against those on the list. Lawmakers also took issue with the bill not differentiating between misdemeanor and felony offenses. 

“I’m still unsure about why you believe we need a registry at all,” said Rep. Judy Aron, a South Acworth Republican and chair of the House Environment and Agriculture Committee. “Is this so people won’t employ them? So that people will stay away from them? I just don’t understand what this list would be for.”

Prudhomme-O’Brien answered: “Would this keep them from being employed? Maybe in the animal care business, yes. I hope you can agree that is not a problem. That’s good judgment.”

Current animal cruelty statutes in New Hampshire fall under the state’s Department of Agriculture. Someone convicted of a felony offense will be prohibited by a court from having ownership or custody of other animals for a minimum of five years. Arresting officers “may” also confiscate animals when a person is charged.

But Salem Animal Control Officer O’Brien described the state’s animal cruelty laws as “a sieve.”

“There’s a lot of loopholes, and if you’re using it as a bucket to hold water, it’s useless,” she said.

Animal abuse registry pitched in NH as ‘needed tool’; critics fear unintended impacts
Bjarna O’Brien, animal control officer for the Salem Police Department, testifies in support of a statewide animal abuse offender registry. (Screenshot)

O’Brien said judges have a lot of discretion in animal cruelty cases, and many don’t have any expertise in them. When animal control officers do make it to court with a case, she said, charges are often deferred for a number of years as long as the individual does not engage in additional offenses. 

But her biggest concern perhaps is the absence of centralized information for animal control officers across the state. Much of the time, the only insight animal control officers have is what’s in their department’s “local” – a small, computerized system providing information about people who live in the town, or out-of-towners who got a speeding ticket there, for example. 

O’Brien argued that if someone committed animal cruelty a few towns over, she likely wouldn’t know about it. 

“A centralized registry of animal abuse streamlines the process for law enforcement agencies to gain details on individuals with a history of animal cruelty by convictions,” O’Brien said. 

Last legislative session, Center Barnstead Republican Rep. Barbara Comtois sponsored a bill that would have created a deputy animal control officer position in each county sheriff’s department, with the intent this person would serve as a clearinghouse for the county. But that effort was defeated when animal control officers and police came out against it, she said, feeling as though they would get overstepped.

Rehabilitation versus ‘public shaming’

Others feel an animal abuse registry in New Hampshire could be a slippery slope, especially in a society where information is widely available on the internet – and what people do with it can be unpredictable. 

Joyce Arivella, a New Boston resident, said the bill was “pitting neighbor against neighbor.” While there are “evil people” who do abuse animals, she said, the registry does not distinguish them from “somebody’s mistake.”

Holmes, the former dog breeder and trainer from New Boston, said people’s stories are nuanced and a name inclusion on a list doesn’t give the full picture. She mentioned anecdotally an elderly woman living in a hoarding situation, or livestock owners who have run out of money and don’t know what to do with their animals. 

“I absolutely believe that putting people on a registry like this and having it open to everybody to view is putting a target on those people’s backs,” Holmes said. “And I, for one, would find it really hard to find (out) that somebody’s house has been burned down or their kids attacked or whatever, because they had this conviction.”

Holmes urged lawmakers to invest in rehabilitation versus “public shaming.”

During a committee work session on Feb. 21, House members were united in that they wouldn’t move the bill forward with a positive recommendation. But they discussed other ways the Legislature could in future years address the issues raised, including looping in the House Criminal Justice and Judiciary committees.

I do think a good point was brought up that there needs to be some better communication within law enforcement about who’s been arrested for what or who’s been indicted for what or who’s been charged or convicted,” said Aron.