The Legislature is advancing a measure to grant nonprofits designated as a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) new authority in litigating animal abuse violations. Proponents are targeting puppy mills, but critics fear the legislation would expose livestock handlers to frivolous lawsuits.

“We simply want to make sure there isn't a lot of wasted time and energy on collateral litigation around standing issues and that folks at SPCAs can go after those who are who are harming our animals and committing cruelty against animals,” said Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel of Los Angeles, in presenting Assembly Bill 554 to a policy committee recently.

Echoing the messaging around water right reforms, proponents described the state’s century-old SPCA law as archaic and outdated, allowing loopholes for violators. The law authorizes SPCAs to assist law enforcement and prosecutors in stopping animal abuse by filing civil actions.

Sponsoring AB 554, the Animal Legal Defense Fund argues the SPCA law requires the nonprofits to regularly litigate their standing in cases. Managing attorney Chris Berry described an instance when this allowed a puppy mill to continue operating for years until a court injunction eventually halted the scheme.

The group has been active in national animals rights issues, opposing dairy digesters and backing the state’s Proposition 12 animal welfare law.

Jesse GabrielAsm. Jesse Gabriel, D-Los Angeles

More than a dozen trade groups are opposing AB 554. The state code, they argue, already sets a low bar for incorporation. Just 20 residents can form a SPCA, a process “ripe for abuse” by animal rights activists who are fundamentally opposed to production agriculture, fairs, rodeos and zoos, according to the coalition. AB 554 would then authorize those “extremist groups” to bring civil suits and cause undue reputational and financial harm to the businesses. Currently prosecutors act as a buffer in determining if a criminal claim is ill-supported, with no law violated or having insufficient evidence. A SPCA humane officer can only aid the prosecutor. AB 554, however, would allow a SPCA to bring that civil claim to court.

“Despite California having the highest animal welfare standards in the nation, there exist individuals and groups within the state of California who simply believe that animal agriculture itself constitutes abuse,” testified Kirk Wilbur, vice president of government affairs at the California Cattlemen’s Association. “Some of these groups go to extreme lengths to disrupt ranching activity. Some will steal animals off farms and ranches under the euphemism of open rescue.”

Lobbying on behalf of the Western Fairs Association, Taylor Roschen added that fairs, like agriculture, abide by the strictest animal welfare and handling procedures and that protestors can be “amazingly disruptive.” Due to the pandemic, county fairs dealt with three years of limited to no attendance, and halting a fair or redirecting scant resources to defend a “specious claim” would be “incredibly calamitous.”

The coalition pushed for amendments narrowing the scope of the bill to focus only on abuse directed at typical pets. But Gabriel has so far rejected the amendments, agreeing instead to have more conversations with the opponents.

“This bill is in no way meant to impact production agriculture,” said Gabriel. “My family is among the largest consumers of chicken fingers and hot dogs in the state of California. We want that to continue.”

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Wilbur countered that if AB 554 were simply a clarification of existing law, there would be no need for the bill.

“If there is an avenue for those folks to have civil standing in the courts, they will bring lawsuits against my members, who are small family operators,” he said. “There will be damages the moment the suit is filed, because a lot of these groups are very big PR groups, they're very big fundraising groups. They will be publicizing these lawsuits even if they are meritless.”

Such claims, he believed, would target practices like roping a calf or putting a cow in a squeeze chute to safeguard them for medical treatment.

Gabriel responded that his bill has a low likelihood for propelling frivolous lawsuits, reasoning the only relief available would be injunctive, rather than the monetary damages often pursued under California’s controversial Private Attorneys General Act. In North Carolina and Oregon, he added, any citizen can bring an animal abuse lawsuit and that has not “opened up the floodgates” for suits.

Gabriel will soon take those arguments to all his Assembly colleagues for a floor vote, before advancing the measure to the Senate.

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