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(TRENTON) — An ambitious three-bill package that would protect animals from abuse and inhumane conditions, help fight crimes against service dogs and help ward off dog and cat overpopulation was approved by the full Assembly on Monday.

The various bills are sponsored by Assembly Democratic lawmakers Nelson T. Albano, Matthew W. Milam, Annette Quijano, Reed Gusciora, John J. Burzichelli and Connie Wagner.

The first bill (A-832), sponsored by Albano, Milam and Quijano and approved by a vote of 77-0-1, would create new crimes for purposefully killing, maiming or interfering with service dogs and other animals that help persons with disabilities and law enforcement.

“Overwhelming evidence indicates that people who cruelly abuse or torture animals are very likely to act violently toward humans,” said Albano (D-Atlantic/Cape May/Cumberland). “I see these bills as a compassionate step forward in our treatment of animals that offer us not only their friendship and companionship, but in many cases help drive our agricultural economy.”

“The harsh reality is that people who abuse animals also often engage in other crimes associated with violence, and will often continue to engage in violent offenses even after serving jail time,” said Milam (D-Atlantic/Cape May/Cumberland). “Animal abuse, quite simply, cannot be taken lightly.”

“Service animals in particular deserve the utmost protections by the law,” said Quijano (D-Union). “Whether it be helping the disabled or law enforcement, these animals represent the best assistance many people can get to make it through their daily lives, and anyone who we must ensure abusing service animals carries severe penalties.”

The second bill (A-1083), sponsored by Gusciora, Milam, Albano and Wagner and approved by a vote of 78-0, would amend animal cruelty law to clarify that failure to provide minimum care is a criminal offense and a civil offense under the state’s animal cruelty laws.

“Failing to provide minimum care to an animal should unquestionably be a criminal offense,” said Gusciora (D-Mercer). “It’s certainly reasonable to ask people to provide enough food, drinking water, shelter, needed veterinary care and exercise for animals under their care.”

“If you cannot provide essential basic care for an animal, than you should not own one,” said Wagner (D-Bergen). “This is a compassionate, but sensible, measure to help combat abuse and inhumane treatment.”

The third bill (A-3205), sponsored by Burzichelli and approved by a vote of 57-15-4, would require that no cat or dog be released from a shelter or pound in the state unless it has been sterilized, unless an owner of a cat or dog who is reclaiming it submits an exemption application to the shelter or pound.

“Overcrowding in animal shelters has become a very serious issue, and one that costs taxpayers money year after year,” said Burzichelli (D-Gloucester/Salem/Cumberland). “Sadly, a big part of that is the unwanted pet population, so clearly we need to take steps to control it.”

The bills head to the Senate for final approval.