Commentary: Abbott's veto keeps dogs suffering

Originally Featured in San Antonio Express-News
Photo Credit: Billy Calzada / San Antonio Express-News

Texas dogs, and the people who love them, deserve more than lawmakers who make decisions that prioritize political posturing over animal cruelty prevention. Since 2015, dozens of stakeholder associations and countless Texans have been working to pass a bill clarifying the existing outdoor restraint statute, which is so vague that it is completely unenforceable.

The Texas Legislature meets every other year, and each session for the last six years, animal advocates, law enforcement officers and supporters have traveled to Austin to testify at hearings, write letters to their elected officials and sign petitions in support of a bill most recently known as Senate Bill 474, the Safe Outdoor Dogs Act.

San Antonio Assistant Shelter Director Shannon Sims carried a heavy chain with him to six years of hearings to demonstrate the living reality of countless dogs across our state. The goal of all these actions? To allow law enforcement and animal control officers to intervene and help suffering dogs before they die a preventable death.

Opponents of bills like the Safe Outdoor Dogs Act include dog fighters and unscrupulous breeders who have long claimed Texas has sufficient animal cruelty laws. But under current law, animal cruelty can only be prosecuted after the fact. Clarifying the existing outdoor restraint statute would allow action to be taken before a chained dog — suffering without shelter or water — dies or suffers abject cruelty.

Texas has the full gamut of extreme weather from freezing winds in the northern Panhandle to sweltering heat across the Rio Grande Valley.

In 2021, during February’s extreme winter storm, the Texas Humane Legislation Network was inundated with hundreds of calls per day from sheriffs, police chiefs and advocates trying to save dogs left to freeze outdoors without shelter. Many of those dogs ultimately suffered terrible fates because the current broken statute prevented intervention.

The outlook was brighter during the 87th Texas Legislature after finally getting this bill passed. Years of work and negotiations with legislators who had questions or concerns resulted in a carefully crafted bill that was acceptable to those representing many diverse interests across the state. And most importantly, SB 474 would effectively protect Texas dogs.

The bill passed the Senate and House, shepherded by sponsors state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. and Rep. Nicole Collier, chair of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. It had the support of Republicans and Democrats, as well as lawmakers from rural, urban and suburban districts. After more than six years of advocacy, outside dogs would have the basic protections they deserved.

After all of that, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the bill. All the elements he cited as “micromanagement” were actually already part of the current statute or carefully negotiated compromises that addressed concerns from lawmakers in both parties to strike the right balance for our state.

The governor was right about this: Texans do love their dogs. That’s why thousands of them supported the Safe Outdoor Dogs Act. And it is why front-line animal rescuers, prosecutors and law enforcement officers spoke out repeatedly about the need for this bill: to allow them to take action to save dogs before the dog dies a preventable death — before the situation becomes an animal cruelty case instead of an animal rescue.

Ultimately, Abbott will have to be a part of the solution, and it is our hope he will reconsider his position when a future version of this bill is on his desk.

Steve Hurst serves as board president of the Texas Humane Legislation Network.

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