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Thursday, September 20, 2007

News from Friday, September 14, 2007

Animal program sets off 'alarms'

By Lindsay Tice , Staff Writer
Lewiston Sun Journal
Friday, September 14, 2007

LEWISTON - A group of breeders, farmers and pet owners lambasted the state's Animal Welfare Program on Thursday, calling its director corrupt and saying recent amendments to Maine's animal welfare law will bring the program money but will not help animals.

After the meeting at the Lewiston Public Library, state Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, vowed to get those new amendments changed and called for an investigation into the Animal Welfare Program.

"I've observed the department and was concerned with how the whole thing was going," Snowe-Mello said. "Alarms were going off in my head."

But Norma Worley, director of the Animal Welfare Program, defends the integrity of her department. And state Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, who co-sponsored the bill that amended the state's animal welfare law, believes protesters are only angry because they'll no longer be allowed to breed dogs and cats without some sort of oversight into the care of those animals.

"They're very upset now the state will know where they are," Nutting said.

Passed last session, the animal welfare bill made dozens of changes to state law. Many of those changes were minor, like increasing the dog-license fee by $1.

But one change has proven extremely controversial. It requires people who want to advertise the sale of a puppy or kitten to pay the state $25 for a vendor number to place in their ad or become a state-licensed breeder, pay a $75 annual licensing fee and submit to animal welfare inspections. It also marks as a "pet dealer" anyone who keeps five or more cats or dogs capable of breeding and sells their offspring.

The changes take effect Sept. 21.

"What is happening in this state is like Gestapo methods of controlling people and kennels, breeders, pet centers. And we need to get together," Snowe-Mello said.

On Thursday, nearly 20 breeders, farmers and pet owners agreed. They met with Snowe-Mello, Rep. Michael Vaughan, R-Durham, and Rep. Scott Lansley, R-Sabattus, to rail against the new animal welfare amendments, saying the bill passed without their notice, the state has no right to interfere with their animals and the new fee amounts to another tax.

"We as the people had nothing to do with enacting this law and frankly that pisses me off," said a Lewiston dog owner who gave her name only as Elsie.

The group also blasted the state's Animal Welfare Program in general and Worley, its director, in particular. They said the program was corrupt and in cahoots with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society. They said the department is abusing its power by raiding perfectly good homes, taking the animals and selling them.

They pointed to the recent seizure of nearly 250 dogs at a Buxton kennel as proof.

"They stole my 12- and 13-year-old pets, and I haven't seen them for a month. They're criminal racketeers," said Heidi Frasca, whose J'amie Kennel was raided in August.

She and her husband, John, face charges of running a kennel without a license, animal cruelty and failure to provide necessary medical treatment to animals. But they said Thursday that they were being railroaded by the Animal Welfare Program and alleged the department wanted their animals to sell.

State officials said many of the dogs have sarcoptic mange and giardia, an intestinal parasite. A lot of the animals remain at the kennel and are being cared for by volunteers.

Snowe-Mello said she went to the Frascas' kennel after the seizure and was stunned to encounter animal workers without protective clothing, even though officials have said the dogs are sick and contagious. The Animal Welfare Program, she said, doesn't appear to be open and honest.

"Frankly, I'm afraid of this department. Very afraid," Snowe-Mello said.

She wants an investigation into the Animal Welfare Program and clearer rules and regulations "so people know where they stand." In the meantime, she plans to work with other lawmakers to submit emergency legislation to amend the new amendments.

She urged breeders, farmers and pet owners to organize in support.

"Everyone make noise," she said. "But be respectful."

But while the group condemned the Animal Welfare Program on Thursday, Worley said her department is doing better than it did before she took over in 2003.

She points to animal-abuse investigators who are now trained and certified, a successful spay/neuter program and a number of seizures that have saved animals from abuse.

"I'm very proud of the things we've accomplished," Worley said.

She also denies any relationship with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Her program does have a relationship with the Humane Society, she said, because the organization's shelters care for and put up for adoption the abused animals her officials seize.

She said the department does not sell animals and does not make money by taking animals from their homes. With the cost of vet care, lodging and food, she said, "We lose money every time an animals is removed."

Nutting, who runs a farm in Leeds, believes in the Animal Welfare Program. While it may have been corrupt six or seven years ago, he said, "We're hearing very good reports all over the place."

He plans to fight any effort to change the amendments he co-sponsored. He thinks the changes will help save animals' lives.

"In my humble opinion, shame on any legislator who does try to repeal this," he said.