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Activists want rewrite of century-old Michigan animal welfare laws

“Had we not intervened in that storm in that weather, I think they wouldn’t have survived," said Carri Shipaila, who helped dogs left out in a snowstorm get help.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A century-old Michigan law continues to have an impact on local animal shelters and rescue groups.

The law—written back in 1919—essentially defines animals as property, complicating intervention efforts.

A West Michigan animal advocacy group highlighted a harrowing ordeal that played out earlier this year as proof of the need for change.

A cold snowy January day.

The mean air temperature in Kent County hovers near freezing.  

Carri Shipaila’s animal advocacy group had been hearing what sounded like a dog barking for days from a Kentwood backyard.

She called police and began streaming the video to social media after sighting a German Shepherd in a snow-filled wire cage.

“We heard something or we thought we heard it out and shine the flashlight back further in the yard,” Shipaila recalled during a conversation with 13 ON YOUR SIDE later that month.

The beam revealed a second dog, apparently unable to stand.

As the livestream continued, Kentwood Police could be seen moving into the frame.

“Had we not intervened in that storm in that weather, I think they wouldn’t have survived,” Shipaila said. “Ultimately, both dogs were removed from the property and delivered to Kent County.”

Where Shipaila assumed the German Shepherds would remain until they were adopted.

“They're here. They're safe. Perfect,” she said. “Monday, I find out the dogs have been reclaimed.”

She wanted an explanation, one she received using the Freedom of Information Act, which appeared to show authorities were forced to surrender the dogs back to their owner based on a lack of evidence.

“It's a marathon… it's something that may take time,” said Scott Dobbins, director of Kent County Animal Control. “We may, unfortunately have to say, well, we don't have enough evidence. Unfortunately, we have to give back the property, which in this jurisdiction, animals are property.”

“I'm just gutted by this, but I've come to a true realization that you can only do what the law states,” Shipaila said. “If you can look at the law in any way you want, alright, well, there's a problem. So maybe the laws need to be clearer, more concise.”

Yet, clarity isn’t the word that comes to mind when experts describe the raft of applicable state and local laws that govern how and how not to care for an animal.

“We take every complaint very seriously,” said Angela Hollinshead, Kent County Animal Shelter division director. “At the end of the day, it really falls back on what we are able to enforce.”

A routine hurdle, according to Hollinshead.

Partially, she said, because the rulebook—the so-called Dog Law of 1919—was written before around half of the 197 breeds registered with the American Kennel Club were even recognized.

“The Michigan state laws, not specific to coat length or breed of dog, it's really very vague,” Hollinshead asserted. “What one person feels is considered adequate care, another person may look at that and go absolutely not… we really depend on the laws to really support us in how we make those decisions.”

Support which relies on specific definitions Hollinshead said simply aren’t there.

Lost in translation between shifting centuries and the changing role of man’s best friend in society.

“Animal welfare has come lightyears ahead of where we were even a decade ago,” she said. “Our laws have not really followed that. They have stayed in the past… we see animals with that have frostbit ears, they have frostbit feet… it can have really terrible effects on their health.”

“Animals can't speak to you when they're cold… you as a responsible pet owner, have to ensure your animals are safe,” Dobbins added.

Dobbins said his seven animal control officers receive, on average, 3,000 to 4,000 reports a year. Many are complaints from neighbors calling attention to animals living out in the elements.

“Those dramatically increase with colder temperatures,” he said. “Every winter, I get calls from my constituents… people have big hearts for their pets and other people's pets.”

State Representative Tommy Brann said it was those phone calls that prompted him to float a fix.

House Bill 4784 would update the decades-old law with specifics not found in the original.

“That's all I can ask for is get a committee hearing. Hopefully get a vote on it,” Brann said.

The proposal was waiting on a vote in the senate judiciary committee at the time of publication.

Back in Kentwood, animal control officers returned several days late and, acting on a search warrant, seized the dogs again, citing video evidence from Shipaila’s livestream.

Not all cases, advocates caution, have the power of social media behind them.

“It's really important that we look at these laws and how we can make them more specific in need,” Hollinshead said. “Ultimately, its health and well-being is at risk because of it.”

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