A Case Study in Prohibiting Devocalization
House Bill No. 344 languished in the Massachusetts legislature for over a year. It sought to prohibit the practice of devocalization. Having the express support of at least 60 legislators, on March 3, 2010 it was finally approved by the House. It provides in part that:
Section 80. (a) No person shall surgically debark or silence a dog or cat, or cause the surgical debarking or silencing of a dog or cat, unless a veterinarian licensed in this state has filed a written certification with the town clerk or, in Boston, the police commissioner, stating that the surgical debarking or silencing is medically necessary to treat or relieve an illness, disease, or injury, or correct a congenital abnormality that is causing or will cause the dog or cat medical harm or pain.
(b) The written certification described in (a) shall contain the date and description of the veterinarian’s examination and evaluation of the dog or cat, statement certifying that surgical debarking or silencing is medically necessary to treat or relieve an illness, disease, or injury, or correct a congenital abnormality that is causing or will cause the dog or cat harm or pain; any supporting diagnosis and findings, the name and current address and telephone number of the dog or cat’s owner or keeper, and the name and current address and telephone number, state license number, and signature of the veterinarian.
(c) No person except a veterinarian licensed in this state, using anesthesia, may surgically debark or silence a dog or cat.
(d) Any person in violation of this section shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than 5 years or imprisonment in the house of correction for not more than 2 ½ years or by a fine of not more than $2,500, or by both such fine and imprisonment. A court may also order any person convicted under this section to submit to a mental health evaluation as determined by the court and undergo any recommended counseling or treatment. In addition to any other penalty provided by law, a person convicted under this section may be barred from owning or possessing any animals, or living on the same property with someone who owns or possesses animals, for a period of time deemed appropriate by the court, and required to take humane education, pet ownership and dog training classes as ordered by the court.
In addition the bill provides that: “Any person or business selling a dog or cat for profit shall disclose whether the dog or cat has been surgically debarked or silenced and provide the purchaser with a copy of the veterinarian certification required by Chapter 272, Sec. 80.”
This was a tough bill, designed to deal with an immoral, brutal, unnecessary practice: no devocalization unless for serious medical reasons; written proof and verification; humane procedures performed by licensed veterinarians; a felony crime; counseling or treatment; prohibition of animal ownership or possession; education and training classes.
It was not unreasonable to expect that H.B. No. 344 would enjoy the support of not only the many legislators who have endorsed it, but also of everyone in Massachusetts who cared about the wellbeing of dogs and cats—especially, preeminently, the Commonwealth’s veterinarians.
Although many individual veterinarians did support the bill, the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, speaking for organized veterinarians, opposed the devocalization bill.
In a cynical, self-serving official statement approved on June 17, 2009, the MVMA had this to say, in its entirety [my comments, made at the time, are inserted in brackets and Times New Roman bold-face]:
The Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, the statewide association of veterinarians [a profession, not a trade, supposedly devoted to the care of companion animals], deplores [not “condemns,” “opposes” or “denounces”] devocalizing [i.e., surgically cutting the vocal cords] an animal to facilitate the animal’s sale or for reasons of convenience.
MVMA encourages [not “implores”] responsible pet ownership from the start, including selecting a breed and particular dog appropriate for the owner’s living situation and foreseeable family circumstances; undertaking behavior training while a puppy; being consistent and reinforcing behavioral standards; seeking veterinarians’ advice when problems arise; and consulting and working in earnest with veterinary behavior specialists, who can often help owners successfully address excessive vocalization problems [excellent advice as far as it went, but not exhaustive].
MVMA strongly urges pet owners to utilize behavioral interventions [like the ASPCA] instead of devocalizing an animal [How about “urging” all MVMA members not to perform the procedure?].
In this imperfect world, however, we know that peoples’ life situations can change. There may be circumstances when devocalization is necessary [“necessary” conveniently not defined], particularly when the owner has already undertaken behavior modification techniques pursuant to a veterinarian’s advice. When all acceptable [acceptable to whom, and by what standard?] avenues for correcting excessive barking have been exhausted, and the pet risks losing her or his life or home [sound like the ASPCA?], we believe that surgical cordectomy needs to be available as a last resort. [The root of the problem is irresponsible pet ownership, and a refusal to live with the choices one has made. If a “change in life situations” includes marriage, divorce, having children, moving, ageing, then there will never be any reasons not to debark. The MVMA posed a false alternative: if “circumstances change,” cut the cords or kill (or dump) the animal. See my comments above regarding the ASPCA].
Ultimately, a decision to devocalize an animal should be made by the pet owner in consultation with a licensed veterinarian. Devocalization should be performed only in extreme [again, not defined] circumstances—as a last resort before turning a pet over to an animal shelter or performing humane euthanasia—and should never be performed as a routine matter [A true statement, but again resting on a false alternative].
While the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association strongly discourages canine and feline devocalization, the MVMA opposes House No. 344 for the following reasons [Now we come to it!]:
• The bill requires that “otherwise confidential information”—such as the animal’s identification and medical diagnosis, and identification and location of the animal’s owner—be made public: we find no precedent for such public disclosure in medicine or veterinary medicine except when public health is at issue. [The MVMA offered not a shred of support for this naked assertion. I have inserted quotation marks above to emphasize the point. All sorts of non-public health information about dogs must be reported to the government, and thus to the “public,” including but not limited to licensing data. The MVMA’s objection was merely a red-herring, unworthy of further comment.]
• The bill provides too narrow an exception for performing devocalization, in that “medically necessary” is not the only legitimate reason for this procedure to be performed: surgical cordectomy may be necessary to save an animal’s life when euthanasia is seen as the only viable alternative. [This, at best, is a non sequitur. First, the MVMA offered only one other “legitimate reason,” and that (“save an animal’s life”) would certainly be “medically necessary”—an exception that the MVMA itself accepted as “legitimate.”]
• The bill infringes upon a veterinarian’s exercise of her or his professional judgment, taking account of the particular condition and circumstances of the individual animal. [Bluntly, this statement was patronizing double-talk, apparently put forth on the assumption that the MVMA’s opponents and the public are stupid. For one thing, earlier in its statement the MVMA encouraged discussion with a veterinarian who, in no case, is the final authority concerning what is to be done with a companion animal; primarily it is the custodian and, in certain contexts like cruelty and malpractice, the state that has the final word. For another, in every situation the veterinarian can, indeed is required to, “exercise . . . her or his professional judgment”—and H.B. 344 no more impinged on that judgment than do any of the other laws and professional constraints governing the practice of veterinary medicine.]
Indeed, ISAR and I argued that a good place to begin exercising that “professional judgment” was by every veterinarian in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts refusing to “devocalize” any dog (or cat)—a moral stand which should have been strongly supported by the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association.
At that time, the Association had an opportunity to reverse its indefensible position and support the bill in the Massachusetts Senate and thereby redeem the organized veterinary profession in the Commonwealth.
But it didn’t. To its everlasting shame, the MVMA persisted in its unprincipled and indefensible opposition to devocalization.
No matter. The bill passed the Senate, and the governor has signed it. “Devocalization” is now a crime in Massachusetts.
And, in the process, the legislature and governor distinguished themselves while the MVMA disgraced itself.
It appears that the granddaddy of state laws against devocalization is found in the New Jersey statutes.
Effective November 20, 2002 it became law in the Garden State that “[a] person who surgically debarks or silences a dog, or causes the surgical debarking or silencing of a dog, for reasons other than to protect the life or health of the dog as deemed necessary by a duly licensed veterinarian shall be guilty of a crime of the third degree.”
Other provisions of the statute include:
In an attempt to overcome Governor Schwarzenegger’s 2010 veto of an anti-declawing/devocalization bill, in June 2012 the Senate unanimously (37-0) passed SB 1229. It prohibits landlords from refusing occupancy to a potential tenant with pets that are not declawed or devocalized. It would be illegal also for landlords to advertise properties in a way that discourages potential tenants from applying for leases if their pets are not declawed or devocalized. Violation of the law carries a civil penalty of $1,000. Not surprisingly, the bill is opposed by anti-animal rights activists. Support comes from the California Veterinary Medical Association, many humane societies and other groups and individuals. The bill has been passed by the Assembly and signed by Governor Brown on September 26, 2012.
In April 2008 Newtown, Ohio, adopted a boiler-plate set of ordinances dealing with animals. Section 90.01 (B) (6) provides that “No person shall do any of the following: (a) Debark or surgically silence a dog that the person knows or has reason to believe is a vicious dog. (b) Possess a vicious dog if the person knows or has reason to believe that the dog has been debarked or surgically silenced.” Section 7 contains provisions regulating veterinarians who perform devocalizing procedures. Overall, the Newtown ordinance leaves a lot to be desired.
Effective October 10, 2000, Chapter 955 of the Ohio Revised Code provided that “vicious” dogs could not be debarked and that possession of such dogs was prohibited. Implementing provisions were also provided, including one allowing the dog’s owner to attest that the dog was not “vicious” and thus avoid operation of the statute.
Warwick, Rhode Island
On March 16, 2011, the Mayor of Warwick, Rhode Island, signed an ordinance restricting devocalization. The legislation tracks the Massachusetts statute virtually verbatim.