LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — The organizers behind Protect MI Pet used Tuesday’s National Pet Day as a launch platform for their ballot initiative.

Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson led a rally Tuesday afternoon on the steps of the state capitol to formally introduce the initiative.

If passed, the proposal would make two key changes, launching a public statewide registry for people convicted of animal abuse and adjusting the state’s animal forfeiture process, reducing the amount of time that seized animals must spend in confinement while legal cases play out in court.

Supporters gathered on the Michigan Capitol steps on Tuesday, April 11, 2023, to announce the launch of the Protect MI Pet ballot initiative. (Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8)

“Right now, animals are treated as property. Not living property, property like a couch or a refrigerator,” Swanson said. “So when we rescue an animal, if the owner doesn’t give up the rights, they sit in (animal shelters) around the state until the case is adjudicated.”

He continued: “We are going to close that loophole that within 22 days of the first probable cause hearing those animals are re-homed to people like you and people like those behind me. Doesn’t that make sense?”

A case involving dozens of dogs is playing out right now in Muskegon County. In January, 78 dogs were seized from Lisa Cober’s home in Norton Shores. She was originally charged with animal cruelty against 25 or more animals, but that charge has since been dropped to animal cruelty against more than 10 dogs but fewer than 25. Both charges are felonies but the lesser comes with a maximum of four years in prison as opposed to seven.

Of the 78 seized dogs, nine died from distemper infections and several more taken in by area shelters reported cases of pneumonia, kennel cough and other ailments. Two other dogs — not ones seized from Cober — died from distemper infections likely after being accidentally exposed to sick dogs at Big Lake Humane Society.

Big Lake Humane Society shelter manager Velvet Lyght holds Tye, one of 78 dogs seized from a Muskegon County home in January. Tye survived a distemper infection. Nine dogs seized from the home died from distemper. (Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8)

Director Alexis Robertson told News 8 last month that the two dogs were not vaccinated prior to being brought in, and while they received the first dose of the vaccine immediately, it didn’t take effect fast enough to prevent an infection.

Big Lake employees made the trip to Lansing on Tuesday to show their support for the bill, bringing along a couple of dogs that were seized from Cober. Tye, a now 4-month-old terrier mix, managed to survive his brush with distemper.

“(When he was brought in) he had all of the upper respiratory symptoms, so we had him tested and he came back positive,” Velvet Lyght, Big Lake shelter manager, told News 8. “So we started treatment. It took about two weeks before he started turning a corner.”

The infection left the dog with some permanent nerve issues.

“Now he has a bit of a twitch he has in his whole body. If you watch his leg, (it looks like) he will wave at you,” Lyght said.

The surviving Cober dogs have been spread across multiple shelters for 70 days now. Given the current state laws, the dogs are still Cober’s property. Since she has refused to give them up, they cannot be adopted. That puts the financial onus on the shelters to care for the dogs for now and the foreseeable future — until Cober decides to surrender her ownership or until her case plays out and a judge issues a ruling.

Many of the care costs were up front, including medical treatments. Lyght estimates Big Lake spends around $450 each day to care for the 15 Cober dogs currently in their care. Since they were first brought in, the Cober dogs have cost Big Lake an estimated $20,000. That doesn’t include the 54 other dogs being cared for at other shelters, including Pound Buddies and Harbor Humane Society.

Walter, one of 78 dogs rescued from a Muskegon County home earlier this year, cuddles up with Tyler Aviano, the canine care coordinator for Big Lake Humane Society. (Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8)

“There are some forms that can be filed for forfeiture of property and that’s 14 days from that, but it’s tied into the preliminary examination which a defendant can waive,” Lyght explained. “So if that never happens then there is no proof that a crime was committed and there’s no start on that 14-day (window).”

To get their animals back, a suspect would have to pay restitution for those costs, but if she forfeits them, shelters are forced to eat those financial losses.

“Restitution is one thing (the courts) can do to compel her to forfeit the property, to sign them over. She can also negotiate to have some of them given back to her and then release the rest of them so they can be adopted out. … But that could be months, it could be years,” she said.

Cober is next due in court on April 20 for a pretrial hearing. She is currently out of jail on a $1,000 bond.

Organizers are working to get the proposal on the November 2024 ballot. To do so, the group estimates they will need to collect more than 500,000 valid signatures.