2015's Most Important Best Of List

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December is prime time for year-end lists. They're an easy way to reflect on the past year, but lives aren't on the line when it comes to the top 10 albums of 2015, or the year's best-selling books. But there is one year-end list that can hold lives in the balance -- animals' lives.

On this list, the honor of top ranking and the disgrace of the bottom is based on more than the year's trends: The Animal Legal Defense Fund's 2015 U.S. Animal Protections Laws Rankings, ranks all 50 states according to the strength of their animal protection laws. Strong animal protection laws serve as a deterrent to animal abuse and reflect how seriously a state takes animal abuse crimes. How does your state stack up?

If you live in Illinois, Oregon, Maine, California or Michigan, you can be proud! Your state is one of the top five. On the other hand, if you live in Kentucky, Iowa, Wyoming, Utah, or North Dakota, the bottom five states in Animal Legal Defense Fund's (ALDF) rankings, your state has a lot of work to do on its animal protection laws.

In every state, there are countless people and groups dedicated to animal protection, but without strong legal protection their work and the work of law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and judges, can be difficult or impossible. ALDF's Rankings report, now in its 10th year, compares and contrasts every state so that it's easy to see which states have model legislation, and which need to play catch up.

It's no easy task to put a list like this together. The rankings are based on a thorough review of each jurisdiction's animal protection laws, clocking in at over 4,000 pages of statutes.

Taking Animal Abuse Seriously

If you judged a state by just one quality of its animal protection laws, it would probably be the presence or absence of felony-level penalties for the most serious types of abuse, like cruelty, neglect, fighting, abandonment and sexual assault. The top five ranking states offer felony charges for at least three of the five abuses, but the bottom five states offer two at best and limit application to only certain species.

The top states all take further steps to protect animals from abuse, allowing courts to restrict ownership of animals after a conviction, a step most of the bottom-ranking states haven't taken yet. The good news is that since ALDF first started publishing the Rankings 10 years ago, states have been trending toward improvement on these issues.

Protecting People by Protecting Animals

This year's Rankings Report highlights an encouraging emerging trend toward legislation that allows animals to be included in protective orders in cases of domestic violence. A total of 29 states have laws like this, and it's about time. Only one of the bottom five states has such a law.

This trend is good news for animals, but it also has an invaluable impact on Americans. The states with these laws are taking better care of their citizens by taking better care of animals. Human victims of domestic abuse are often afraid to leave their pets behind, so they remain in dangerous situations. Protective orders are crucial for removing both human and animal victims from the cycle of domestic violence. The clear Link between violence toward humans and animals has been understood for a long time, but now the laws are starting to reflect it. Simply, protecting more animals means protecting more at-risk citizens.

Breed-Specific Legislation

Every few years a new breed of dog captures the public imagination as being "dangerous." Thankfully, a growing number of states have recognized that a dog's breed does not necessarily determine it's temperament. Nineteen states have banned breed-specific legislation (BSL). Studies have demonstrated BSL's failure to have any impact on stopping dog attacks or improving public safety. Too often, families are forced to give up their beloved dogs because they relocate to a new jurisdiction, and countless innocent dogs will never make it out of the shelter because they have a few physical features of the banned breed.

The Abuser on Your Block

Just because a state's at the top of the list doesn't mean it's an animal utopia. There's still a ways to go when it comes to protecting animals under the law. ALDF's major recommendation for states that already have strong animal laws is the creation of animal abuser registries. The reality is that, statistically, animal abuser are extraordinarily likely to repeat their crimes and, too often, well-meaning shelters or individuals have unknowingly put animals in harm's way by allowing animal abusers to adopt new victims. Registries are one way that animal care workers, shelters and individuals can avoid this fate and prevent further abuse.

You Have a Part to Play

The ALDF doesn't put this list together just to praise and shame states. It sheds light on something most Americans don't know much about. We're a country of animal lovers--most households now include at least one animal--but in so many states, the laws don't reflect the public's concern about animal protection. You don't have to sit back and wait, hoping the 2016 Rankings have better news about your state. You can take action. If December is the season of countdown lists, January is time for resolutions, so go ahead and write down "vote for animals" as your #1 resolution for the new year. And ALDF has tools to help you make positive change in your state.

Didn't see your state mentioned? Learn more about the Rankings Report and see exactly how well your state did in 2015.