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Lawmakers consider pet-offender registry

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A bill under consideration in the state Legislature would require the county sheriff to notify you if a convicted animal abuser lives in your neighborhood.

The state Senate and Assembly are considering creating a registry for those convicted of felony animal abuse, similar — though not identical — to the registry for sex offenders.

Those convicted of felony abuse would have to forward their information, including their photograph and address, to their county’s sheriff’s department. The sheriff’s department, in turn, would be required to notify every home, business, school and animal shelter within a half mile of the animal abuser’s home that a scofflaw is in their midst.

“I think the registry concept is something worthy of exploration,” said state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, a co-sponsor of the bill. “We’ve done it in a number of cases. They are something that has worked from a human perspective.”

Mr. Griffo held a public hearing Wednesday in Utica to discuss what he said was a spike in animal abuse in Central and Northern New York. The legislative action is in response to an uptick in animal abuse and a high-profile case in West Utica, where a man allegedly had dead and emaciated dogs in his home.

The animal abuse registry was one of several measures discussed at the public hearing by law enforcement officials and animal rights advocates.

Animal abuse tends to spill over into abuse of humans, statistics show. But an animal abuse registry could raise eyebrows among small-government conservatives wary of extra requirements on local police, and on civil libertarians who chafe at the idea of the government controlling more information about people, even convicted animal abusers.

“I don’t think it’s a good use of a law enforcement official’s time,” said Michael R. Long, the state Conservative Party’s chairman.

He also said civil liberties infringements could be an issue.

But Charles F. Ruggiero III, the GOP’s candidate for Jefferson County sheriff in 2012 and a law enforcement veteran, disagreed.

“Almost exclusively, every mass murderer started as an animal abuser, either in their youth or early adulthood,” Mr. Ruggiero said. “I found that statistic to be very compelling.”

In April, a Watertown woman was accused of frying 12 goldfish. If Jessica L. Baughman, 21, is convicted of the crime, she would have to register as an animal abuse offender and police would have to notify neighbors where she moved because the alleged crime was a felony.

In 2011, the bill passed through the Senate Agriculture Committee, chaired by state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton. Mrs. Ritchie voted to approve the bill.

Mrs. Ritchie said law enforcement officials haven’t complained about extra requirements that could come of the bill. Instead, they’ve said it’s too difficult to know how to enforce the law.

The legislation would help people trying to sell or give away pets.

“They want to make sure that they’re sending them to the appropriate homes, and the people they’re sending these pets to are going to be good owners and not people who are going to do something potentially like what happened in Utica,” Mrs. Ritchie said.

The cost to the state is “to be determined,” according to the legislation.

Erie County, which contains Buffalo, has considered a similar animal abuse registry proposal. Suffolk County on Long Island enacted one two years ago.

A Buffalo-area legislator, state Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst, voted yes “without recommendation” on the bill when it came up in 2011. It signaled that he had some concerns — namely, that the technology used in the bill was antiquated. For example, the sex offender registry uses a website and other forms of electronic notification, but this would leave each county to create its own registry and would require police to notify homes and businesses.

“Why are we doing something which seems a little bit less effective than the system that is in place (for sex offenders) right now?” Mr. Ranzenhofer said, while adding he supports the idea “in concept.”

Other bills that have been discussed or passed would increase penalties on animal abuse; one bill would make it a felony to steal a licensed dog or cat and takes into account “the monetary and emotional value of a pet.”

The Legislature also may change the animal abuse laws so that they’re under the penal code, instead of the Department of Agriculture and Markets law, which police might not know how to find.

It’s not just the well-being of animals that’s at stake, Mr. Griffo said.

“I’m concerned that there’s linkage between the abuse of animals and the abuse of people,” he said.

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