BOSTON (SHNS) – Almost 20 years after Massachusetts became the only state in the country that classified all animal cruelty cases as a felony, animal rights activists are supporting a bill to reverse that decision.

In certain cases, such as when a pet owner has mental health or substance use issues that keep them from taking proper care of their animal, judges hesitate to deliver a felony charge that could come with jail time or other serious consequences, advocates told the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

Under current state law, there is no route to take an animal away from a person who may be neglecting or mistreating it and prevent them from adopting again without charging them with a felony offense.

The 2004 law that eliminated misdemeanors for animal cruelty was intended to crack down on abuse, but MSPCA staff attorney for animal protection Lynsey Legier said it has not necessarily increased animal protections.

“This aligns with criminal justice reform, which I know that this committee has advocated for in past sessions. There are situations where law enforcement intervention is necessary to protect an animal because they are suffering and cannot remain safely in their home, and yet criminal prosecution is not appropriate,” Legier said.

Rep. Edward Philips and Sen. John Velis’ omnibus bill (H 1718 / S 1142) concerning humane protections for animals would create a task force focusing on once again establishing misdemeanor animal cruelty charges. The task force would have a year from when the bill is passed to report its findings on the effectiveness and adequacy of creating a misdemeanor animal cruelty statute.

Since 2012, the Animal Rescue League of Boston and the MSPCA have been able to issue citations for cruelty of dogs through special state police officers who have the ability to enforce laws, said Ally Blanck of the Animal Rescue League of Boston. The citations are mostly meant to be educational, Blanck said, and it is rare for ARL to pursue criminal charges.

But, they only have the power for cruelty to dogs. ARL is supporting legislation that would expand their ability to cite cruelty to other animals as well.

“The expansion of civil citations to involve all animals would allow for situations that are approaching felony cruelty, it would allow for intervention sooner,” Blanck said.

She added, “We had a cruelty case a number of years ago on Martha’s Vineyard with a cat breeder. We were told that there were 30 cats that were living in filth, turned out that there were 90 cats that we ended up taking in until it rose to that level of felony cruelty. There was nothing we could do because cats are not included under the civil citation authority.”

Also included in both the House and Senate omnibus bills is a prohibition on roadside sale of dogs and cats, and the sale of puppies or kittens under eight weeks old, when they are still reliant on their mothers for nutrition and socialization.

When asked by committee co-chair Rep. Michael Day which version of the omnibus animal protection bill they prefer, MSCPA representatives said the House bill, H 1718, included more provisions in a single bill, while certain policies were filed as standalone legislation on the Senate side.

The committee also heard testimony on Tuesday in favor of a re-filed Rep. Kimberley Ferguson bill (H 1481) to make it a civil infraction to knowingly misrepresent a dog as a service dog or service-dog-in-training “for the purpose of obtaining any rights or privileges afforded to a person with a disability requiring the assistance of a service dog.”

Ellen Leigh, an Arlington resident who uses a motorized wheelchair and has a service dog named Ricky, testified in favor of the bill for the second time.

“Before Ricky I had frequent falls and injuries that led to multiple surgeries and hospital stays,” she said Tuesday. “When a dog is misrepresented as a service animal, when it is actually a pet with no special training to mitigate an individual’s disability, then this is a fraudulent act, and one that could harm someone who’s vulnerable. Pets are great, but they’re not trained to be in public. They can become stressed and react with aggression.”

Leigh said she has had many experiences encountering another dog wearing a service vest out in public, and having to leave when the other pet becomes physically aggressive with Ricky.

“Ricky was chosen for his gentle temperament and then carefully trained to be completely non-aggressive. He cannot defend himself in situations where a dog is being aggressive,” she said.

Training service animals takes a year and a half to two years, said Stacey Ober of the American Kennel Club, who also testified in favor of the bill.

“As someone who has served in multiple combat zones and commanded combat troops in Iraq, Massachusetts has a large veteran population, many of whom benefit greatly from their service animals. The stigma created by pet owners misrepresenting their pets and service animals makes it less likely that those who really need them will obtain or use one,” said Robert Likens of the Pet Advocacy Network.

Ferguson has offered similar bills for the past four sessions, since 2017. The bill has been reported favorably in the past, and most recently had 53 co-signers last session, but it has never crossed the finish line.

This year, in addition to filing the same legislation she has put forward in previous sessions (H 1481), Ferguson offered a bill to create a commission to study the intentional misrepresentation for a service animal (H 1480), in hopes a commission may help solve unanswered questions that are continually leading to roadblocks.

“Obviously there’s still an ongoing problem with this,” Ferguson said. “We didn’t hear so much of it during the COVID time period, and that’s because a lot of people were home … when we entered into our more ‘normal’ times, if we want to call it that, we saw again the true increase in just outward abuse and misuse of a service animal.”