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A law Maine legislators passed last year was supposed to keep animals seized by the state from spending months in legal limbo, but 175 still haven’t had their day in court because of COVID-19 restrictions that have, until recently, limited court schedules to emergency matters.
The 175 animals in state custody includes five horses, close to 100 cats, about 50 dogs and five goats, according to Liam Hughes, director of Maine’s animal welfare program. The cost of housing them in shelters around the state and their veterinary care is not known but is expected to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said Wednesday.
All the animals are considered to be evidence, so they can’t be adopted.
Thirty of the dogs are Great Danes. Twenty of them, including many who were puppies and at least half a dozen who gave birth while in state custody, were seized Jan. 21 from a property on Coldbrook Road in Hampden, along with a horse and a cat.
The animals’ owner, Jill Schnedler, has refused to voluntarily surrender the animals. A date for a hearing in her civil case that alleges 17 counts of failure to provide necessary shelter, food and water, medical treatment and clean conditions for her animals has not been set, according to the clerk’s office at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor.
She did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Wednesday.
The impetus for the law passed last year was to speed up the legal process so that seized animals would spend less time in state custody and the cost of caring for them would fall, according to Hughes. The statute requires that a hearing be held within 31 days after a prosecutor files paperwork asking a judge to permanently terminate an owner’s right to the animals. If that hearing is postponed for some reason, it is supposed to be rescheduled within two weeks.
But in mid-March, the court system limited the kinds of cases it considered to emergency criminal, child protection, protection from harassment and abuse and mental health commitment matters in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Recently, the courts have been hearing other types of matters that are uncontested if they can be handled remotely.
Contested matters in which people wish to appear in person may not be held until Aug. 3. At that time, only 10 people — including the judge, attorneys, court personnel and witnesses — would be allowed in a courtroom at a time, according to the court system’s reopening plan.
Media interest in animal seizure cases would make it difficult to schedule those cases as long as the 10-person limit is in place. That limit will be in place through September.
For the seizure cases to get before a judge more quickly under the coronavirus-related restrictions, a judge would have to grant an emergency petition filed by one of the parties.
That did happen in Lewiston in a case in which more than 80 cats were seized last year, but the judge has not issued a decision yet, Hughes said Wednesday.
The state usually doesn’t add up the costs of caring for animals until just before a court hearing, he said. In the Lewiston case, those costs have exceeded $124,000.
The delay has been stressful for the animals, their owners, the state’s animal welfare program and the people running the shelters that house them for the state, according to Hughes.
“The state of Maine does not operate an animal shelter, so we rely on our animal sheltering partners to help care for the animals while we await the possession hearing,” Hughes said.
“Under Maine state law, animal welfare is required to provide a clean humane place for the animals to stay while they wait for the court hearing, as well as provide proper necessary sustenance and medical care.”
While the department pays directly for veterinary care, the rate set to reimburse shelters for care is $5 a day per animal, which does not cover the actual cost for their care.
Five of the Great Danes, two adults and three puppies, that were seized in Hampden in January were taken to the Kennebec Valley Humane Society in Augusta. They have been placed in foster care, which is allowed in some circumstances under the law, according to Hillary Roberts, the shelter’s executive director.
“They’ve been living with these families for five months,” she said last month. “This is supposed to be a temporary situation. Ordinarily, animals are only with foster families for one month.”
Under the law, the animals can’t be spayed or neutered at the age they normally would be, Roberts said.
“They’re really in legal limbo, which is not fair to them,” she said. “They need to be made available for adoption or returned to their owner.”
One foster family would like to adopt the Great Dane that’s been living with them, Roberts said, but can’t move forward until the ownership issue is settled. Another dog has had high medical bills due to recurring urinary tract infections.