Dog measures draw sparks, barks at hearing

Posted April 16, 2009, at 9:01 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Five and a half hours of testimony Wednesday by dog breeders, veterinarians and pet owners on five separate pieces of dog-centered legislation revealed one conclusion: The state’s Animal Welfare Division needs to find funding beyond what it receives from dog licenses.

The bills heard by the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee included LD 879, which would allow kennel owners to vaccinate their own dogs; LD 454, which would give a seat on the Animal Welfare Advisory Council to a dog club representative; and LDs 1286, 1103 and 964, which would revamp existing breeding regulations and install surcharges on rabies vaccine, change the definitions and fees for breeding kennels, give state humane agents expanded powers, and build in protections for consumers who purchase dogs.

Over and over, those testifying said that less than 50 percent of Maine’s dogs are licensed and those fees provide more than 80 percent of the Animal Welfare Division’s funding.

“The real issue here is what the animal welfare program needs,” Newell Auger, an attorney representing the Federation of Maine Dog Clubs, told the committee. “It doesn’t need new laws. This is an issue of resources. Eighty percent of the program is funded on the backs of dog owners while the program serves cats, horses, birds, livestock.”

Sharon Secovich, chairman of the Animal Welfare Advisory Council, said an example is the extended time the division recently spent investigating a case of cruelty to chickens and “dog owners are paying for that.”

One of the key objections by breeders was that kennels would be defined by the number of intact, breedable females, not their purpose, such as hunting, showing or field trials.

The atmosphere was charged at times and despite the committee’s attempts to halt it, testimony often attacked AWD Director Norma Worley.

Worley has become a lightning rod for many in the breeding community who feel she is too aligned with groups such as the Humane Society of the United States. Breeders testified that she has “bullied, coerced and threatened” dog owners.

The American Sporting Dog Alliance, based in Pennsylvania, earlier this week called for the defeat of the new breeding bills as well as the firing of Worley. To make its point, the alliance called for a boycott of travel to Maine and the purchase of all Maine products.

Several dog owners who testified Wednesday recounted their personal experiences with Worley, including Carol Murphy of New Sharon, who is suing the AWD for an alleged violation of due process and what she described as an illegal search and seizure of her dogs.

Many breeders who testified Wednesday said the existing dog laws are adequate and are working. They pointed to large puppy and dog seizures from so-called puppy mills last year that pushed the AWD budget $660,000 in the red as proof the laws are usable.

“These bills go too far,” George Smith of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine testified. “You are placing an unfair burden on us. [Reputable breeders] have been treated with suspicion and lumped in with puppy mills as bad breeders. Maine already has exceptionally strong laws regarding animal abuse.”

David Robichaud of Dixmont said, “We who have been law-abiding all along are being penalized” by the regulations.

Larry Clough of West Gardiner testified that he believes the underlying reason for the proposed changes was not to further refine breeding regulations, but to eliminate large kennels.

In Maine, Worley said, there are six large kennels with more than 50 dogs each.

Other breeders, such as those raising beagles, said the new laws would not work for their particular breed.

Worley did have supporters in the crowd.

Robert Fisk, president of Maine Friends of Animals, said, “I and many in this room cannot imagine a better-run division than the one run by Norma Worley.”

After the hearing, which did not adjourn until 6:40 p.m., Worley said she understood the passions of the dog owners. “These are difficult discussions,” she said.

It is expected a work session will be scheduled on the five bills in two weeks.

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