General Assembly Takes Steps to Protect Pets With Animal Cruelty Bill

Adoptable dog S'mores bundles up for a chilly winter season. Contributed photo.

By Amie Knowles

February 28, 2021

Awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature, SB1412 would prevent people convicted of animal cruelty from working in a pet store. 

CHATHAM – At the Pittsylvania Pet Center in Chatham, puppy tails wag and soft kittens purr. There might even be an occasional rabbit or gerbil greeting visitors as they enter the no-kill animal shelter. 

Each animal at the shelter searches for the same thing: a safe and loving home. Sadly, not all of the animals’ lives started out that way.

In some cases, the pets at the center came in hungry, cold and with ailments caused by a human hand. 

Brent Weinkauf, executive director of the Pittsylvania Pet Center, said all sorts of things fell under animal cruelty in Virginia. 

“Obviously not taking care of your animal, number one,” Weinkauf said. “That should be the simple thing of feeding and housing and loving your animal.”

Things like abandoning or physically abusing animals also constituted animal cruelty, he noted.

If Gov. Ralph Northam signs SB 1412 as expected, Virginians convicted of animal cruelty could no longer serve as owners, directors, officers, managers, operators, staff members, or animal care givers in a pet shop. The same rules apply for breeders. 

Furthermore, prior to selling or giving for adoption any dog, a pet shop must obtain a signed statement from the purchaser or adopter stating that they do not have an animal cruelty conviction.

If the bill, filed by Franklin County Senator Bill Stanley, becomes a law, it could potentially help animals throughout the state.

“The number one reason for any law or ordinance is to protect animals and to hold those people accountable that are not following those rules and regulations,” Weinkauf said.   

Those found in violation could face a Class 1 misdemeanor.

What’s Considered Animal Cruelty?

Animal Control Officer A. Crowder with the Danville Police Department provided an overview of what the law considers animal cruelty. 

 “Animal cruelty basically consists of if a person ill-treats, hurts, harms any type of animal in any type of way that results in serious injury or even death,” Crowder said.

She expressed the importance of the pending legislation, as SB1214 adds even more protections for animals into the state’s Code, which currently has few. 

“Unfortunately with the Codes that there are now, there’s only two that require a person not to be able to own animals,” Crowder said. “But there’s nothing that requires you not to work with animals.”

Adding to the existing law, Crowder noted the asset of having the legislation down in writing. 

“For the safety of the animals. Our job as Animal Control, I feel like we’re supposed to educate on the animal laws. We’re supposed to issue summons and warrants that need be and our job for that is being the advocate for the animals. So in order for us to do that correctly, the people who harm animals need to be away from animals,” Crowder said. “That’s what our job is: to be the voice that they can’t be. They can’t talk to us. They can’t tell us what’s wrong. We’ve got to know how to do that. And we’ve got to be able to stand up for them. So I do think it’s a great thing to have because animals are innocent creatures and it needs a backup system.”

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Ahead of the Game

At Pet Safari, located at 36 Center St. in Chatham, shelves stay stocked with pet food, aquariums, litter boxes, kennels and more. Birds tweet, fish swim, snakes slither, rabbits nibble and frogs croak. 

“I’m just a small local pet store in downtown Chatham,” said Kole Leftwich, owner of Pet Safari. 

However, that small local pet store in downtown Chatham was ahead of the game when it opened last November.

Even before SB1214 hit Northam’s desk, Leftwich conducted both background checks and drug tests on potential employees. As an employer in the pet industry, the idea of an individual convicted of an animal cruelty charge applying for a job around animals didn’t sit well with him.

“It baffles me,” Leftwich said. 

The pet store owner expressed the necessity of having a law like SB1412 on the books. It will better protect the sanctity of the lives of animals. 

“It’s very important. Animals are very important, their lives,” Leftwich said. “They’re just like us humans. Our lives are important, just like animals. They’re a living creature, just like we are.”

A Big Win

If the governor signs this piece of legislation, Leftwich expressed that it would reach beyond merely a small step in the right direction for animals in Virginia.

“It would be a big win,” Leftwich said.

Regardless of whether or not the bill becomes a law, Weinkauf encouraged the public to speak up if they see an animal in need. 

“It’s an old saying of mine, but it’s a ‘blind eye, dear ear’ type of thing. If you see something wrong, report it to your local animal control. Report it to your local animal shelter. Report it to the SPCA, anyone you can,” Weinkauf said. “Basically, reach out to as many avenues as possible to try and alleviate any wrongdoings that you’ve witnessed or know about to animals, period.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected] 

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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