By: Walt and Sharyn Hutchins  Date: 01/8/2012 Category: | Animal Legislation | Canine Issues |

In the January 2002 session, the Virginia legislature passed a law defining volunteer home animal rescuers accepting more than six animals per year as Companion Animal Rescue Agencies and subjecting them to state inspections and requirements. The State Veterinarian may inspect CARAs ‘at any reasonable time’ just because he wants to, with no warrant required. As a CARA, we are required to:

  • Register with the state veterinarian and pay a fee – $100 is likely.

  • Post our addresses and telephone numbers in pounds in the localities we serve.

  • Have a listing as a rescue in a telephone book.

  • Make our premises ‘accessible to the public at reasonable hours.’

  • Make our records available to the public on request.


Animal rescuers don’t work that way. We require an approved written application, check references, do a phone interview and often a home visit before we would ever give out our home addresses and many do not do so even then. Rescuers are nearly all women and about half of us live alone. We have big problems with the new requirements.

You might think that in exchange, there’d at least be a requirement that pounds and shelters work with us, but nope – they “may” transfer an animal to a CARA but there’s no requirement that they do so. You might think that such an intrusive law would have passed only after a battle, but – wrong again. It passed all committees and both houses without an opposing vote.

Rescuers were blind-sided. In the past we have been regulated only as other animal owners are, so we weren’t watching the legislature. The Virginia Federation of Humane Societies (a ‘program’ of the Humane Society of the US) just told everyone that they had consulted rescuers and that we favored the bill. Our state’s coalition of dog breeders and activity clubs should logically have opposed SB 260 (breeders will be the next target), but their legislative liaison had been doing her own thing as a friend of the VFHS lobbyist for years. She said it was okay, so the coalition did not oppose the bill and even told the American Kennel Club that it was okay. Rescuers heard of the bill as it cleared the senate, but a petition with nearly a thousand signatures failed to convince Governor Warner not to sign and SB 260 became law on April 8, 2002.

In mid-May, we established an e-mail list to coordinate opposition to the law and a web site that became active in mid-June at

The website has the law (and analyses of it), stories from rescuers, suggestions for what to do to fight, ways to send money to help with expenses, press coverage, an explanation of what rescue is ... much more. There’s a tab with suggestions for how out-of- state folks can help us ... hint hint!

We focused on writing letters. Legislators and other officials take them more seriously than anything other than a personal visit, and you have to get them to agree before you can make a visit.

We were starting in the worst possible situation. Not only had the law passed without opposition but it was to take effect on July 1, and the state veterinarian was telling us to register immediately. The law, however, said registration was to run from January 1 each year. Lawyers we consulted informally agreed that the state veterinarian didn’t have the power to change that.

We wrote letters to the governor saying “They can’t do that – have the attorney general look at the law and tell them to stop.” A representative in the state veterinarian’s office said “Stop bothering the governor – he’s just sending your letters over to us to answer.”

That really made us mad. Rescuers wrote and faxed the governor: “This is a policy decision – your policy. That’s not something you ought to give to the state vet.” A couple of days later, we learned that the question had been handed to the attorney general and that the mailing of forms for registration was “Um... temporarily on hold, because, ah, we want to get some questions answered by the attorney general.”



Four days after that, we learned that registration would begin January 1, 2003, per the law and that no fee would be charged until implementing regulations were written and approved – a process expected to take a year or more.

A small victory. We took an official break for an ice cream cone and then went back to work on letters to legislators. We

  • described the personal dangers
  • told them the law would not help stray animals get home (one of the arguments advanced by promoters)
  • that it was useless, sloppy law writing, and substantially unconstitutional and
  • pointed out that rescues were folding or cutting back their numbers to stay within the limit for an unregistered rescue.

It’s bad enough for an independent dog rescuer to cut from 12 to six, but our state’s largest ferret rescuer will be down from 165 animals saved per year to six. One rescuer’s husband is in the Navy; he was able to obtain orders to another state to prevent their having to give up rescue. Many regional and national rescue organizations simply couldn’t figure out how to comply with the law, so they deactivated their Virginia branches.


Legislators repsond...

We got a few answers to our letters.

From the law’s hapless sponsor, “We did not intend this law to apply to rescuers that don’t accept strays” or (sometimes) “to home animal rescuers.”

From many legislators “The law passed without opposition. I suggest you discuss your concerns with the VFHS lobbyist as she may want to suggest an amendment.” Yeah, right – the fox will definitely have a solution to problems in the henhouse.

And “Talk to the bill’s sponsor – I could support any changes he feels are necessary.”

And a personal favorite: “We’ll be monitoring the impact of the law and will consider any changes that might be needed.” (So, senator ... if the number of violent felonies committed against rescuers forced to disclose premises addresses is excessive, you might consider changes?)

We got some press coverage, and scattered opinion pieces and letters to the editor were published. Legislators still weren’t listening, as evidenced by the fact that our own senator’s aide told me he wouldn’t meet with us. “Put your concerns in writing and Senator X will check the folder for SB 260 in the fall, when considering what changes he might support.”


More Letters From Our Side

At the end of July, we wrote what was basically a ‘flame’ to all the legislators. This letter was posted on the website at

As the e-mail list members and others continued to write letters, some got return phone calls, and a few got meetings with lawmakers. The various committee chairmen responsible for the mess talked to the VFHS representative, and we heard of various possible changes. Then we were told that since much of the law conflicted with other Virginia laws, we didn’t have to worry about the details. Now there’s a great legal theory.

We are pushing now for the law to be repealed in a special session of the legislature. Everyone says we won’t get it, but everyone also knows that if one rescuer too many complies with the law and gets badly hurt or worse, the special session will happen within days. We’re trying to get them to do it now, rather than after the headlines. The ‘all legislators’ letter is on the website at It was mailed with two pages of rescuer horror stories about the results of people finding their premises addresses (dogs dumped, killed, gates opened, threats ...) and a two page narrative of a “sample” dog rescue.

We learned...

1. Virginia’s SB 260 is one of the many tentacles of HSUS anti-pet activity. Three states – Colorado, Missouri, and Kansas – already had rescuer registration laws. Animal rescuers in other states need to watch their legislatures for laws like these because it is a hundred times easier to prevent a law from being passed than to get it repealed.

2. Rescuers aren’t the only people who need to worry about SB 260; breeders could easily be next. Reputable breeders guarantee to take back their own animals forever. Once there’s a rescuer data base in shelters, wouldn’t it be ‘logical’ to have a breeder database? Purely voluntary, of course. Then in a couple more years, it might need to be made mandatory, because of, you know, the “exploding pet overpopulation problem.” (I assume that all readers know that there is no such problem ... but that doesn’t stop anti-pet groups from using the argument.) Then add some fees and a few regulations, “so the people who are creating the problem can help pay for the solution.”

A word to the wise breeder: If rescuers are registered, we’ll be too intimidated to help when it’s your turn.

3. Educating your own people is more than half the game. Fight the urge to disallow viewpoints you don’t like or consider stupid – people need to see everything discussed.

For every three people on an e-mail list who loudly hold onto a foolish idea until it drags them under, 20 others are listening silently and changing their minds. They are the ones the discussion is for. Next week the three will continue their preferred action – doing nothing – and one of the 20 will send a helpful letter to all legislators.

4. Don’t expect to be very favorably impressed with state government. There are a handful of true gems, a bunch more who want to do the right thing if they’re shown what it is and it’s not too hard, a great number who are just serving time or punching a ticket for higher office and another bunch who are corrupt, don’t care, incompetent, evil, or some combination. Don’t waste time getting upset – work with anyone you think might help and get on with the job.

5. Don’t think the crew of the HSUS ‘mothership’ is 10 feet tall. Call it Walt’s law: When you require your top players to be fruitcakes, you mostly don’t get the sharpest bunch of knives.

A second big weakness of the other side is pervasive lying – people do figure that stuff out and they don’t like it. (Corollary: your side must be very careful with facts so legislators can tell the difference.)

Another weakness is that most of the people doing the work of the animal rights side either don’t understand or don’t support the whole program. Fight the program but don’t declare all animal rights-leaning players to be enemies.

In the SB 260 campaign we estimate that no more than 10 people fully understand and support the law. The others want it for non-animal rights reasons, i.e.shelters that feel they compete with rescuers, officials who want to silence whistle blowing rescuers. Some supporters may buy fake reasons such as helping strays get home or controlling animal hoarders; others may be members of supporting organizations but do not personally believe in the law.

6. Don’t get bogged down in details. To stop or change a law you must: (a) understand it from end to end; (b) bury legislators in letters and media coverage making it clear that voters don’t like the law; (c) tell them exactly what you want, and why; and (d) repeat b and c until the problem is fixed. There are various ways to organize and do all that. Each has advantages but none is always ‘best.’ As long as ‘the herd is moving west’, you are doing okay.

The final chapters of the SB 260 story will have to be written after the General Assembly acts. Hopefully that will be soon, but we will never give up while this law is above ground.


About The Author

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Walt and Sharyn Hutchins -

Member/Volunteer/Partner/Article Writer of the National Animal Interest Alliance.

All Authors Of This Article: | Walt and Sharyn Hutchins |
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