By HOLLY RAMER Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Hoarders being prosecuted for animal cruelty could get some help under a bill being considered by New Hampshire lawmakers.

The proposal before the House Environment and Agriculture Committee doesn’t make animal hoarding a crime, but would define it within the state’s animal cruelty statute as “a situation where an individual or individuals are unable to care for multiple animals in their custody due to psychological reasons.” It also would add a provision allowing a court to order psychological evaluations of and treatment for the owners of animals taken in as a result of hoarding, before a case goes to trial.

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Rep. Howard Pearl, the bill’s sponsor, said people with mental illness too often end up ensnared in the criminal justice system.

“Animal hoarding disorder is a particularly complex mental health illness requiring a multidisciplinary approach given the individual’s inability to acknowledge their animals’ neglect and suffering,” said Pearl, R-Loudon, at a public hearing earlier this week. “Seizure of the animals and criminal prosecution alone is an insufficient response in these situations.”

Depending on the circumstances, animal cruelty can be either a misdemeanor punishable by up at a year in jail or a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Seizure and prosecution often leads to repeat offenses, because those responses only address the symptoms of the disorder, said Eileen Dacey, who runs the North Shore Elder Services’ Center for Hoarding and Cluttering in Massachusetts. But therapy that includes maintenance programs after initial recovery is often successful, she said.

Opponents said the bill raises due process concerns and could lead to the criminalization of mental illness.

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“We do not want to walk that line or cross the line of finding a mental illness unlawful,” said Gina Scrofano, who maintains a website tracking animal welfare legislation.

Lawmakers on the committee also raised concerns about the financial burden of court-ordered therapy and whether the state has enough clinicians to provide it.

Few other states have such laws. In 2001, Illinois enacted a legal definition for “companion animal hoarder” and mandated counseling for those who are convicted of animal cruelty and meet the definition. Hawaii outlawed animal hoarding itself in 2008, but the law was later repealed. Rhode Island added a section to its animal cruelty law in 2017 criminalizing the “hazardous accumulation” of a large number of animals to a point where the owner fails to or is unable to provide adequate living conditions.

New Hampshire has seen several high-profile animal cruelty cases in recent years.

In Wolfeboro, Christina Fey was convicted in 2018 of 17 counts of animal cruelty after dozens of sick Great Danes were removed from her filthy mansion. A judge ruled that she would serve no jail time if she attended counseling for a year, and she was ordered to pay over $1 million for care of the dogs by the Humane Society of New Hampshire, which placed them with new owners. The state Supreme Court is considering her appeal.

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