The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld two convictions against a defendant who was found guilty of subjecting her dogs to cruel conditions. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Trefry.
The defendant was charged with two counts of violating a statute that was enacted in 2012 to protect dogs from abuse by their owners. The defendant had been living in Brewster (on Cape Cod) but her house was condemned in August of 2012. She moved into a nursing home but left her two Shetland sheepdogs at her property. The dogs were able to access the inside of the condemned house and a yard that was enclosed by a fence. While the defendant and her friends sometimes stopped by the property, the dogs were largely left by themselves. The interior of the house and the yard were disgusting. There was trash piled inside the house and the entire property smelled of garbage and dog feces. An animal control officer was working with the defendant and by July of 2013 observed one of the dogs to be badly limping. That dog was treated by a veterinarian and both dogs were removed from the defendant’s property three days later. The defendant was thereafter charged with two counts of violating the statute (one count for each dog).
The statute, entitled “Chaining or tethering dog to stationary object; confinement; restrictions; penalty,” is different than the Massachusetts animal cruelty statute. A violation of the animal cruelty statute constitutes a felony that carries a potential state prison sentence. The statute in this case is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum possible penalty of a fine. After repeated violations, the government can seize any dog being abused. The defendant argued on appeal (as she argued in the trial court) that her conduct did not satisfy the elements of the statute. It’s true that the title of the statute (and most of the statute’s text) focuses on chaining or tethering a dog. In fact, the statute provides incredibly detailed rules about the amount of time an owner is permitted to leave a dog outside on a chain and the maximum weight of a chain. If an owner has a cage or an outdoor pen for the dog, there are restrictions on the size of the pen and the height of the walls. The statute contains rules aimed at owners who choose to attach their dogs to cable runs. There are even rules about what suffices as adequate shelter for a dog that is left outside for an extended period of time.
The defendant here was convicted pursuant to a section of the statute that prohibits an owner from subjecting a dog to cruel conditions. Exposure to excessive animal waste, dirty water, dangerous objects, noxious odors, or dirty water satisfies the definition of cruel conditions. The evidence in this case established the dogs were “ravaged” and “traumatized” by the time they were removed from the home. One of the dogs sustained a leg injury that left him limping and had also contracted Lyme disease. Further, there was so much clutter in the condemned house that it presented a dangerous condition for the dogs. The Appeals Court concluded the defendant had been properly convicted of the statute.