Imagine the horror of a dog locked in a hot car. In many jurisdictions, a citizen acting in good faith may break into the car, even cause damages, and rescue the animal.

Now imagine a skinny horse in a muddy pen. No hay is in sight and the enclosure is unclean. Maybe if there is water, it is frozen. Does one have the right to trespass and rescue the horse from its situation? Again, yes, in some jurisdictions. In most jurisdictions and most cases, however, one is better off contacting local law enforcement.

Imagine a laying hen facility. Birds are packed closely in cages. Optimal food and water are provided, and the eggs are harvested automatically. Waste falls through the bottom of the wire enclosures and is removed either on conveyors or by heavy equipment working beneath the elevated houses. Birds that die are removed daily. All is within the law.

But let’s say you simply don’t like the way that looks. It bothers you emotionally. In your opinion, you also feel the hens are being mistreated. Should you have the right to break in and remove at least some of the hens to conditions you feel are better and more humane?

In the case of the hens, or dairy animals, or feedlot cattle or farmed mink, the law says no, you cannot trespass and steal the producer’s property.

Some want to make the law apply uniformly across all such cases — referred to as a “right-to-rescue.” Some animal activist groups practice criminal trespass and stealing animals raised by farmers, ranchers and breeders. They not only believe, but assert, such conduct should be legal because they are opposed to raising animals for food and biomedical research. They want laws changed.

Ground Zero for this effort probably is the Berkeley City Council, the first body to support a right to rescue. Last month, according to content supplied by JD Supra LLC, the council voted for a version of the original resolution submitted but with floor amendments.

The push came after the arrest of 148 activists in Sonoma County who trespassed and stole chickens from a farm to allegedly provide the animals with adequate water and feed. Groups are also pushing such changes in the law to other councils around the Golden State.

Understand that Boulder, Colo., and Berkeley often do such stuff and it is often much more ceremonial proclamation than binding law. For instance, back in 2003, San Francisco joined a growing number of cities that proclaimed their animal-owning population also as “pet guardians.” The first city to change its ordinance was Boulder followed by Berkeley and West Hollywood in California; Sherwood, Ariz.; Amherst, Mass.; Menomonee Falls, Wis.; and the state of Rhode Island.

At issue is the fact animals are defined as chattel property with some variation, according to state and municipal laws. Proponents of the “pet guardian” term say it promotes greater responsibility and respect for pets without granting them additional protections or changing their legal status. With no changes in the law, that begs the question as to why one should seek a legal body’s proclamation? Regarding right-to-rescue, I frequently hear people say things like, “I don’t care what the law is, I need to keep trespassing and caring for those animals,” or some such. That’s usually followed by, “There isn’t a jury that would ever convict me.”

Attorneys and judges select juries, not your sympathetic friends, and you must pay at least one of those parties.

Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email cpowell@vetmed.wsu.edu.

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