Reliable evidence establishing a link between animal abuse and domestic violence continues to grow. According to the American Humane Association, a national advocacy group established in 1877 to address the related issues of child and animal abuse, almost three-quarters of pet-owning women who enter shelters report that their abusers had injured, killed, or threatened family pets. Between 25 per cent and 40 per cent of battered women were unable to leave an abusive situation due to fears for their pets or livestock. Animal Law, a legal journal from the Lewis & Clark Law School in Oregon, reported similar results from surveys of battered women conducted in 1999 and 2001.
It’s a serious problem, without an easy solution.
Veterinarians often are the first line of defense against animal abuse and they should be free to report suspected abuse to authorities without fear of reprisal. Legislators in some states understand the scope of the problem and the need to be part of the solution; sadly, lawmakers in a few other states simply do not get it.
Earlier this year, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell signed legislation granting immunity to veterinarians from any civil or criminal liability or any administrative penalty for good faith reporting of suspected animal abuse. The law also protects veterinarians who provide records to authorities or who testify in a judicial proceeding. This is how the law should work, and it is how the law does work in many states.
And then there is Kentucky, which likes to think of itself as the "Horse Capital of the World." In addition to a bottom-tier ranking for animal protection laws by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Kentucky remains a state in which a veterinarian cannot legally report suspected animal abuse without violating veterinarian-client confidentiality laws.
During the 2009 session, the Kentucky legislature enacted a law that guaranteed the confidentiality of veterinary records. This was a good idea. The very limited exceptions to the law do not include protection for a veterinarian who violates client confidentiality to report animal abuse, however. An attempt was made during the 2010 legislative session to amend the law and establish that a veterinarian who made a good faith report of suspected abuse would not be in violation of the confidentiality provisions. House Bill 238 passed without a single "No" vote in the state House of Representatives, then it was consigned to committee purgatory in the Senate, never to see the light of day.
Kentucky legislators might be excused for this oversight, though, since they clearly had more pressing matters to debate. For example:
The legislature designated Sam Bush as "The Father of Newgrass Music," whatever that is;
The legislature designated the Corvette as the Official State Sports Car;
To avoid what must be rampant confusion, the legislature changed the name of the "Pine Mountain Trail State Park" to the "Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail;"
And, finally, the legislature created the Commonwealth of Kentucky War of 1812 Commission. This legislation was declared an "Emergency," apparently because of the timeliness of the War of 1812.
And the Ugly
The inattention of the state legislature to a genuine emergency leaves Kentucky veterinarians in a legal no-man’s land for at least another year, with an ethical and moral duty to report suspected animal abuse on one side and a statutory prohibition against doing so on the other. Unlike child abuse and animal abuse, both complex issues requiring multi-faceted solutions, this problem has an easy fix.
The proposed amendment to the current law was one sentence, 31 words. Maybe next year the legislature will find time to pass it.