Animal Law

ABA helps animal shelters address challenges during COVID-19 pandemic

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Katie Bray Barnett is licked on the face by her rescue dog Leonidas

Katie Bray Barnett's three-legged dog Leonidas is a registered therapy dog who serves at juvenile detention facilities and the local VA hospital. "He has lymphoma and won't be with us much longer, but will certainly leave a legacy," says Barnett.

Katie Bray Barnett was in her last year at the University of Kansas School of Law in 2010 when she started thinking about organizing a conference for nonprofit animal shelters.

She grew up volunteering in shelters, adopted her own dogs and even decided to pursue a career in law to prevent cities from banning pit bulls and other specific breeds. She planned to work with her local shelter in Lawrence, Kansas, after she graduated and wanted to help animal advocates and attorneys who were interested in doing the same in their communities.

Last week, Barnett moderated the ABA’s ninth Animal Shelter Law Symposium, an all-day conference that concentrated on mitigating housing problems for pet owners, protecting animal shelters from liability and preparing effective foster home agreements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The main purpose is to provide legal support to animal shelters,” says Barnett, the owner of the Barnett Law Office, who began working on the symposium with the Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section Animal Law Committee in 2012. “We are always aiming to educate attorneys so they can go back and assist their shelters, but it would do a disservice to the entire symposium if we said we weren’t also trying to educate animal shelters and their executive leadership.”

This year’s symposium, and its focus on COVID-19, was particularly relevant for animal shelters since many of them cannot afford in-house cousel and are forced to navigate changes ushered in by the pandemic on their own, Barnett says.

“Attorneys are reaching out to each other, saying, ‘What do you think about this? How do you interpret the way this language is written?’” she says. “If we’re supposed to have this high-tier education and be all knowing, but we’re scrambling and talking to each other, just imagine if you’re a rural shelter, a municipal shelter or a shelter that doesn’t have a connection with an attorney.”

Give me shelter

Abby VolinAbby Volin is the president of Opening Doors.

A central topic of discussion during the symposium was the importance of pet owners securing and maintaining housing, particularly during the pandemic. Abby Volin, president of Opening Doors, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that helps property managers develop safer pet policies and tenants address pet-related housing issues, pointed out that when eviction moratoriums expire, animal shelters may be inundated with pets that can no longer be cared for by their owners.

Tenants need to know their rights, says Volin, who suggested that animal shelters or their counsel create a list of local, state and federal housing protections to offer to people who come in to surrender their pets. She adds that if tenants know what tools are available, they could prevent an eviction or at least take more time to consider their options.

“Time is just so precious, and if you have those couple days, couple weeks, you can figure out, can someone hold my pet temporarily or what can I do so I don’t have to surrender my pet to a shelter?” Volin says. “And if you do have to find new housing or rehome your pet, at least you have the time to do it and make sure you’re comfortable with it.”

“Really knowing where you can get help is important, because I can’t tell you how many emails a day I get from people who say, ‘So, my landlord tells me I have to be out by tomorrow,’ when that’s simply not the case right now,” she adds.

Health and safety

Other panelists focused on how animal shelters could best protect their staff, volunteers and visitors during the pandemic. Rebecca Huss, general counsel of Best Friends Animal Society, an animal welfare organization in Kanab, Utah, emphasized that shelters should clearly communicate any changes in protocols and be consistent in their treatment of everyone.

“That helps from a liability perspective, so you don’t have potential claims of discrimination or discriminatory treatment,” says Huss, who serves as a vice-chair of the TIPS Animal Law Committee. “But it also helps, for example, if you require staff members to be masked, you want to make sure you require your volunteers to be masked, because you want your staff to feel like they are being as protected as possible.”

screenshot from the presentation
Rebecca Huss discussed workplace safety during the Animal Shelter Law Symposium.

Huss says animal shelters need to regularly check federal, state and local regulations related to COVID-19 since they have changed periodically. Even as the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more available, she recommends that shelters remain vigilant in upholding safety measures.

“It’s going to take a long time to get everyone vaccinated who wants to get vaccinated,” Huss says. “We have to continue to have protocols and processes in place with the understanding that COVID is still going to be something we’re dealing with for some period of time.”

Rebecca Huss and her dogsRebecca Huss and her dogs Lily and Rose. Photo by Jodi Gehman.

Huss says that the COVID-19 pandemic has also provided animal shelters with the opportunity to reconsider how they run their programs. Recognizing the growing shift toward community-based sheltering, she helped the TIPS Animal Law Committee develop a new pro bono project that connects volunteer lawyers with animal shelters that need help establishing or strengthening foster programs.

Fostering change

As part of the project, which launched in September, Barnett led training sessions with attorneys who wanted to learn how to draft foster home applications and agreements. During the final presentation of the symposium, she shared the templates that were created by the committee and how their provisions could protect both animal shelters and foster homes.

Despite the increase in people asking to foster animals during the pandemic, Barnett says she heard from many shelters that their board of directors or county commissioners were hesitant about starting new programs.

“So, we’re first trying to help animal shelters who don’t have foster home programs understand that it’s legally an extension of your shelter in most states,” she says. “And then get the decision-makers understanding the risk and liability associated, and how to mitigate the risk, so everyone wins.”

Barnett calls on ABA members to get involved in the pro bono project if they are passionate about public service and want to help animals and families that are struggling because of COVID-19.

“It’s not just about the animals, it’s about lifting up your community as a whole,” she says.

Interested attorneys can find more information or register on the TIPS Animal Law Committee’s website.

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