Will new animal welfare legislation get passed to help animals like Momma?

Momma outside in the snow on a day with 9 degree windchill.

It’s been a few days since the pit bull Momma was finally brought inside from freezing temperatures, and the outpouring of public attention has helped to start some important changes. However, city authorities and neighbors still don’t know what’s become of Momma, the dog’s owner or the home’s resident. Currently, the law doesn’t give the Humane Rescue Alliance much in the way of options.

The article was one of the most read pieces that Petworth News has published, and for good reason. I received comments and emails from as far west as Oregon to northeast in New Hampshire, south to North Carolina and Florida. After the outcry from people in DC and around the country, DC councilmembers, the Mayor’s office and the Humane Rescue Alliance all made announcements on plans to fix this type of issue from occurring in the future.

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Update: Momma's owner has removed her from the property. Her whereabouts and welfare remain unknown.

Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd got involved early in the day on Monday, and by Monday evening was preparing new legislation for the DC Council on animal welfare. The legislation, titled “Extreme Weather Protection for Animals Act of 2017,” co-sponsored by Councilmembers Elissa Silverman, Anita Bonds and Mary Cheh, seeks to amend DC Code § 22–1001 to clarify the conditions in which animals must be brought inside due to severe weather conditions, with failure to comply considered “cruelty to animals.” (See a PDF of the proposed legislation):

Extreme Weather Protection for Animals Act of 2017,” amends Title 22, Subtitle, 1 Chapter 10 ‘Cruelty to Animals’ to require that animals not be outside longer than 15 minutes when the Homeland Security Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA) declares a Cold Emergency Alert or when the temperature falls or is expected to fall below 15 or 20 degrees Fahrenheit including wind-chill, and when:

1. Steady precipitation for 60 consecutive minutes
2.Snow accumulates 3 inches or more
3. Or other meteorological conditions or threats as determined by Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.

In a press release, Councilmember Todd said, “When I was sworn-in last week, I pledged to be responsive and responsible to my constituents, and that is exactly why I am introducing this legislation. I am pleased to start a conversation around better protecting our animals, and look forward to discussing improvements to the bill with all stakeholders.”

“It is our Government’s responsibility to protect our friends who cannot protect themselves,” Todd said. “It was truly heartwarming to see how many residents reached out yesterday with concern for Momma’s welfare.”

In an email to Petworth News on Wednesday evening, co-sponsor Councilmember Elissa Silverman said, "As the owner of a great cat named Ousman and a lover of all kinds of pets, I was very disturbed when I heard about the case of Momma. So yesterday I was pleased to co-introduce the Extreme Weather Protection for Animals Act with Councilmember Todd. No pet should be left for long periods in such weather, and I want to thank Councilmember Todd for his leadership on addressing the need for more comprehensive animal welfare laws. I am committed to continuing to work with my Council colleagues to find legislative solutions that improve animal wellbeing in the District and ultimately make our city safer and more animal-friendly."

Councilmember Mary Cheh, also a co-sponsor of the bill, sent Petworth News and email, saying, "The version [of the bill] introduced on Tuesday is a start and I hope it triggers a broad look at the cruelty provisions beyond being left out in the cold. Indeed, the definition offered should be changed so it's not seen as the exclusive meaning of 'protection from the weather,' since more than extreme cold should be included (hurricanes and extreme heat come to mind), and other acts which amount to cruelty should be examined as well."

Princess, the previous dog that lived in the same dog pen as Momma on Randolph Street and disappeared this summer. (Photo courtesy Petworth neighbors.)

This amendment to the DC Code is only a first step; giving the Humane Rescue Alliance more legal authority, and more financial resources, should be the next step.

David Smith, Chief Communications Officer for the Humane Rescue Alliance (HRA), said that the incident with Momma helped to “raise critical awareness among lawmakers to make common-sense changes to protect animals. We have been working with our allies on the DC City Council to ensure that there is action to strengthen the laws, and to improve our collective ability to protect animals.”

He went on to say that HRA has started analyzing historical data to determine what would be needed in terms of legislation. “Councilmember Todd’s legislation is a good first step but we want to look at the data to determine what else we would need. At the very least we would like to see basic minimum standards for the construction of outside dog shelters. Aside from this issue, the most pressing need we have is to give our animal control officers the authority to issue citations which they currently do not have.”

According to Mr. Smith, HRA is contracted by the city to “provide animal control services for the District. Our Humane Law Enforcement Department in entirely privately funded, and is on call 24/7.”
Leslie Harris, a board member with HRA, recently wrote on the Chevy Chase listserv that HRA wants to do more, but has its hands tied. “The law regarding what constitutes adequate shelter and care is inadequate. If a dog has ‘adequate food and water and shelter’ as defined in the law, the HRA officers cannot take the dog into custody. HRA officers can and have urged owners to surrender dogs in such circumstances, work to get the dogs moved inside and actively monitor the situation.”

Ms. Harris seemed to dispute the Petworth News article about the condition of the dog, writing in the same listserv message, “No one has, as been alleged, left the dog unsupervised with an abusive or negligent owner.” 

Princess, the previous dog at the Randolph Street address that pushed neighbors to reach out the HRA. Princess disappeared this summer, and Momma then came to live at the Randolph Street dog pen. (Photo courtesy Petworth neighbors.)

She goes on to say that HRA officers are continuing to make regular visits to the home, “building trust with the owner and assessing the welfare of the animal.” She writes, “If they have legal cause to take the animal into custody, they will do so, as they did with several other dogs last weekend.”

According to Mr. Smith from HRA, Momma is in the possession of her owner, so therefore is not unsupervised. As to what happens next with Momma, since she is in the owners' possession, "as long as he acts lawfully, the owner will decide next steps."

However, neighbors familiar with the Randolph Street house verify that the dog’s owner does not live at the house and only stops by every few days. He was not seen checking on the dog over this past weekend, as seen by the frozen water bowl, lack of food and feces present in the dog’s pen. He took the dog inside late on Monday afternoon, after the current resident was arrested by MPD and removed from the home (on unrelated charges) around 1pm that afternoon. To their knowledge, Momma's owner has not been back to the house.  

Neighbors are concerned the house is currently empty, as according to DC Courts, the resident who was arrested was set to be evicted this week with additional charges in an ongoing (unrelated) legal issue. Neighbors are concerned that Momma isn’t being fed or walked presently.

The Mayor's office confirmed with neighbors that Momma is still at the residence, but a WUSA reporter said she spoke with the dog’s owner who nows says he'll be removing Momma from the property and won't be keeping her there any longer. 

I reached out to the two neighbors who have been spearheading the effort to help Momma over the past year to get their thoughts on Monday's events and what they hope to see happen. 

“It was amazing to watch thousands of people work together with our local government agencies, rescue groups, friends, neighbors, and elected officials in order to make this happen,” one of the neighbors said.

“We have won a small victory, but there is still much work to be done," she said. "We are uncertain of Momma's whereabouts, living conditions, or whether she is being appropriately cared for.  Additionally, the proposed draft legislation does not go far enough to protect animals during all kinds of extreme weather, or to more broadly improve the legal level of care we expect pets in the District to receive. As the nation's capital, we have an incredible opportunity to be on the forefront of modern, progressive legislation, and I implore our councilmembers and mayor to take those brave, bold steps required to protect the District's animals.”

Another neighbor told Petworth News her view on this week's events. “It's incredible to see the outpouring of support for Momma and other neglected dogs in DC. Princess and Momma shouldn't have had to suffer to get attention on the issue of animal welfare in the city. It shouldn't take an outpouring of calls and emails to our elected officials to make something happen. I hope the momentum will continue; we need people to stay engaged to support policy changes. We need input from the community and the Humane Rescue Alliance on legislation — not just on extreme cold, but what's adequate care and what's neglect so there's no question when a dog is in need of help. Let's make it easy for humane law enforcement to take action — their job is hard enough. And I still want confirmation Momma is safe — she should be surrendered.” 

Momma in the dog pen at the Randolph Street house over the weekend.

Everyone I spoke to felt that the Humane Rescue Alliance needed greater authority and clearer regulations for animal welfare. Their concerns aren’t that HRA isn’t doing its job, but that the organization doesn’t have the legal authority or resources to do that job as fully or effectively as residents, and the organization itself, need it to.

"We are going to engage the community in coming days and weeks on addressing the short comings of DC animal welfare laws," Mr. Smith said.

Continued pressure by residents will help. You can learn more about ways to support the effort for better animal welfare laws by signing a petition and contacting the DC Council, and Liking "Momma's Law," a new Facebook page that is tracking animal welfare law changes. Information can be found in a previous Petworth News article, "Here's how to help change to DC animal welfare laws (it needs your support)."

Update on Momma (1/13): According to the Facebook page "Momma's Law: Improving DC Animal Welfare," the owner of the pit bull Momma has taken her from the Randolph Street residence, presumably to Maryland where he currently lives.

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