Michael Vick wants to save pets in cars: progress on animal welfare laws?

As Pennsylvania considers a bill to protect pets left in cars, animal cruelty experts say many states should update their laws.

Matt Rourke/AP
Rep. Joe Markosek D-Allegheny, right, looks on as Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Michael Vick poses for a photograph Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. Vick is lobbying Pennsylvania legislators on a bill that would help protect pets left in hot cars. Vick was a star quarterback for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons when he pleaded guilty in 2007 to being part of a dogfighting ring and ended up serving 21 months in prison.

On Tuesday, NFL quarterback Michael Vick made headlines for publicly supporting a bill in Pennsylvania that would protect cats and dogs left in unattended vehicles.

Under the bill, first responders rescuing animals from unattended cars and trucks would not be liable for any property damage caused to the vehicle during rescue. The bill would also make leaving a cat or dog in an unattended vehicle in extreme heat conditions a summary offense, the most minor type of infraction in Pennsylvania, usually punishable by a fine.

"The bottom line is that all animals thrive (on) kindness and respect," Mr. Vick said at a news conference at the state Capitol on Tuesday. "They depend on us like our children depend on us."

Vick pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges in 2007 for his role in a dogfighting ring. He served nearly two years in prison and lost his status as a star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. Since then, Vick has become an advocate for animal welfare, and returned to the NFL, where he played five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"I know that I'm an enlightened advocate" for animal welfare, Vick said at the news conference in Harrisburg, Penn. "I was part of the problem when I was at my lowest. I made decisions to make change and I stand by them."

Vick has worked with the Humane Society of the United States since 2009, speaking out publicly against animal cruelty at schools, shelters, and legislative hearings.

The bill, and Vick's role in supporting it, has shed light on the challenges – and progress – animal welfare laws have undergone in recent years.

Animal protection laws in America have predated the country's founding. The Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted the first law about animal cruelty as early as 1641.

“No man shall exercise any Tirranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man’s use,” said the law, which used older spelling of several words, such as "tyranny" and "cruelty," according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Historically, animal protection laws were made to protect livestock. In some states, such as New York, animal protection laws are outdated because they still focus on livestock, and should carry stronger penalties, say animal cruelty legal experts.

"Prosecutors and the courts are hamstrung by laws that aren't just out of date but that don't treat crimes against animals like the serious crimes that they are," Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who is advocating for a new law in Albany that would bring cruelty laws up to date and strengthen penalties, told The Associated Press last year. "Not only does animal crime law in New York have little to no sentencing requirements, but it doesn't even allow the courts to count prior convictions in sentencing, essentially giving a free pass to repeat offenders."

Still, many states have made progress on animal cruelty measures. Three-quarters of US states and territories have improved their animal protection laws over the past five years, according to an annual report released by the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Since the first "U.S. Animal Protection Laws & Rankings" report was released in 2006, 14 more jurisdictions have made it a felony to engage in repeated or aggravated animal neglect, The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this year. Today, all states now have such legislation.

Currently, some 17 states have laws making it illegal to leave pets in vehicles on warm days, according to the Humane Society of the United States, and some, such as Pennsylvania, are also working on legislation to shield first responders from liability if damage is incurred to a vehicle in rescuing a trapped animal.

As Scott Heiser, director of the Criminal Justice Program at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, told the Monitor earlier this year, “There is a very favorable trend as legislators recognize that this is an issue their constituents care about.”

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