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Online registry of animal abusers draws praise, also raises concerns

A proposal to create an online registry of animal abusers in Erie County drew strong support during a public hearing Thursday but prompted concerns from groups representing farmers and pet stores.

About a dozen pet owners, rescue volunteers and animal advocates lauded the proposed law as a step toward preventing animal abuse during an hourlong public hearing held by the Erie County Legislature.

"This should be considered only a first step," said Jeri Eberhardt, a volunteer for two local rescue organizations. "Our animal protection laws are weak and enforcement even more so."

But the meeting also highlighted concerns from two groups -- the New York Farm Bureau and the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council -- about how the proposal would impact their members.

The Farm Bureau pressed lawmakers to more narrowly define the legislation to exclude farm animals, while the pet trade association raised concerns about a requirement that would mandate that pet stores check the registry before selling animals.

Pet stores and adoption agencies could face a $1,000 fine if they fail to check the registry and sell an animal to someone on the list.

"Such a requirement, applying to virtually every transaction a pet seller makes, would be so cumbersome and time-consuming that it would seriously impede business," Bambi Nicole Osborne, director of government affairs for the Pet Industry Advisory Council, wrote in testimony submitted to the Legislature before the hearing.

The proposed law, submitted by Legislator Terrence D. McCracken, would ban people convicted of animal cruelty in Erie County from owning animals for five years and would require them to be listed in an online registry that would include their photographs and addresses. Those on the list also would face a $1,000 fine for owning or buying an animal.

McCracken said he plans to discuss the concerns raised during the hearing with his colleagues but said he doesn't think the registry would place an unfair burden on farmers.

"Until it's implemented and we see how it goes with the registry, they're going to have concerns and they're going to be a little anxious about it," McCracken said after the hearing Thursday.

McCracken said legislators could take up the proposal as soon as their next session at 2 p.m. Thursday. The proposal was submitted with the support of all six Democratic legislators -- enough to pass the local law. It also would need to be signed by County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz to become law.

A similar law is already on the books in Suffolk County. State Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, also has proposed the creation of a statewide animal abuse registry.

Several speakers urged Erie County legislators not to pare down the proposed local law for industry groups.

"It would be a grave mistake to immediately discount and redefine the term 'animal' so that certain people do not have to have the scrutiny of this legislation," said Morgan Dunbar, founder of Animal Allies of Western New York.

Clara Miller, vice president of Buffalo Humane, was one of several speakers who told lawmakers that animal abuse is often linked to violent crimes against people.

"This is a great first step, and we support it wholeheartedly," Miller said. "We just want to see it go a lot further."