Responding to an increased interest in animal related legal issues, the Maine State Bar Association, at its summer meeting in June 2005, offered two sessions on Animal Law. The first session discussed the state of animal welfare law in Maine. The second session focused on the link between animal abuse and human abuse. In an informal discussion following the discussion of the connection between violence against humans and animals, the idea developed to propose to amend the Protection from Abuse Statute. Growing out of the concern for both human and animal victims in family conflicts, the seed was planted for what has now developed into a new state law that received national and international attention.
On March 31, 2006, Maine Governor John E. Baldacci signed LD. 1881, An Act to Amend the Animal Welfare Laws, sponsored by Representative Piotti, at a public signing ceremony in the State House. The new law took effect on August 22, 2006.
In Maine, victims of domestic violence can seek the court's help in ensuring their safety. With the assistance of one of the domestic violence advocacy groups around the state, or on their own, victims can seek a protection from abuse order. It is a civil process and begins when the victim files a complaint in district court alleging abuse by a family or household member. If the judge determines there is ground for an order to protect the victim, he or she will issue a temporary protection from abuse order. Unless challenged by the defendant, a hearing will be scheduled with 21 days. At hearing, the parties have opportunity to present their cases. At the end of the hearing the judge will decide whether to issue a permanent order, which can last up to 2 years and be renewed if warranted.
Victims of domestic violence can request that the judge include specific language to address the care, custody and control of any animal owned by either party or any minor child living in the household. In the past, in the absence of specific language in the law to give judges authority to do so, victims had to make a creative argument to persuade the judge that the issue of the animal living in the household should be addressed in the order.
Orders under this new law, however, do not determine ownership of the animals. The statutory language was deliberately drafted in such a way as to allow the victim to request an order even if the animal was "owned" by the alleged abuser or a minor child residing in the household. It is not an order on behalf of the pet granting the pet protection from abusive owners. Rather, victims will have the ability to apply for an order that includes temporary care, custody and control for pets. Violation of the provision of the order that addresses the pets may be treated as contempt.
The new law is important for several reasons. First, it recognizes the connection and overlap between violence against humans and violence against animals. Second, it reinforces the message that society today is no longer willing to tolerate violence against domestic animals. Third, it aims to assist victims of domestic violence in developing a safe plan to leave the abusive relationship should they decide to do so. Victims who own or live with animals in the household are often afraid to escape from an abusive relationship for fear of what will happen to their pets if they leave their pets behind. By giving the victim the ability to seek an order that specifically addresses the pets, courts can make this step a little easier for the victim. Fourth, it is an important step in protecting children as growing up in a violent environment is not healthy for children on many levels. Last, but not least, it is a significant step in the recognition that animal abuse should not be tolerated, whether for the animal's sake or the human who is emotionally attached to that animal.
While the new law is certainly a very important step in the right direction, more work needs to be done to assist human and animal victims of domestic violence. Armed with an order the victim may well be able to remove the animals from the home but often the practical problems begin when a decision has to be made on where to go. Domestic violence shelters typically do not allow pets. The victim may not be in a position to look for new animal friendly housing. Resources for boarding, veterinary care and feed may become issues. The Animal Welfare Society in West Kennebunk and other Maine animal shelters have been collaborating with domestic violence shelters in developing programs that assist victims in finding temporary housing for the animals.