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Are animal cruelty laws strict enough?

Published On: Jul 03 2013 11:40:02 AM CDT
Updated On: Jul 03 2013 10:07:49 AM CDT
Dog at animal shelter

chahad/SXC

Mitch Strohm, THELAW.TV

Animal cruelty laws -- laws against deliberate animal abuse or neglect -- are quickly growing, with South Dakota now being the only jurisdiction without felony penalties for animal cruelty.

In 1992, only seven states treated animal cruelty as a felony.

Now there are 49 states with felony laws, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF).

"That's pretty amazing. In 20 years you've seen 42 state legislatures pass laws to treat animal cruelty as a felony," said Chris Green, ALDF's director of legislative affairs.

That's a boon for animals.

But even though states are quickly adopting animal cruelty felony laws, many believe there's still room for improvement.

Puppy mills, dog fighting, equine cruelty, animal hoarding, animal entertainment and farm animal cruelty all make the list of hot button issues.

And there's a fight going on for better, stricter penalties across all states.

Current penalties

"The penalties overwhelmingly are not that severe when you look at the harm to animals," said Allie Phillips, director of the National Center for Prosecution of Animal Abuse.

Penalties can range from zero jail time up to 10 years of jail time, she notes, depending on state laws and the type of offense.

While there are efforts to try to increase penalties if someone does something extreme, like torturing and killing an animal, notes Phillips, the sentences are very minimal in some states.

For instance, in South Dakota, poisoning, intentionally killing and inhumane treatment of an animal are all Class 1 Misdemeanors with up to $1,000 in fines and with up to one year imprisonment.

Compare that to Illinois, a model state for animal protection laws, where conviction for animal abuse or neglect is a Class B misdemeanor carrying a penalty of six months in prison as a first offense, according to ALDF.

Additional offenses in Illinois are a Class 4 Felony with a minimum sentence of one year, and repeated aggravated cruelty or torture is a Class 3 Felony, with imprisonment up to 10 years.

"Illinois is really at the forefront," Green said.

All 50 states currently have some sort of animal cruelty statutes, but they all differ.

Not all states have laws on every issue, and not every law applies to every animal, said Ann Church, vice president of state affairs for the America Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

For example, there may be different laws for domesticated dogs and cats than livestock or wild animals.

"In general, you can say that if there's a felony cruelty law, it will definitely apply to dogs and cats. But it doesn't necessarily apply to other animals. So each state is different," Church said.

Not always cut-and-dry

Determining animal abuse or neglect isn't always completely cut-and-dry.

For example, leaving dogs alone in hot vehicles without ventilation or outside in the elements is a common mistake, especially during the summer.

"A lot of states have passed laws that specifically address dogs in hot cars. In other states it's not necessary, the cruelty law would be sufficient to cover that," Church said.

But, it's a tough situation.

Usually people have their dogs with them because they love them so much, explains Church. Yet, if it is an incredibly hot day, and the animal has been left in the car, it could be considered a crime, she said.

"You do have to look at it on a case-by-case situation," Green said.

If the owners have their dog in the car during the spring, with the windows cracked, it may not be found to be a violation, he said.

Best and worst states

Every year, the Animal Legal Defense Fund publishes a report that surveys animal protections laws of all the U.S. states and territories.

Each jurisdiction receives a raw score that's based on 42 study questions covering 15 different animal protection law categories.

It then ranks the jurisdictions and lists the "Best Five" and "Worst Five" states overall.

One of the biggest factors ALDF looks at is whether a state treats animal cruelty as a felony, Green said.

South Dakota doesn't have any felony animal cruelty laws, so it's naturally on the list of worst states.

On the other side of the coin, Illinois has consistently ranked at the top of the list, having the strongest animal protection laws in the country, notes Green.

In 2012, the five states with the best animal protection laws were: 1. Illinois, 2. Maine, 3. California, 4. Michigan and 5. Oregon

The five states with the worst animal protections laws were: 1. New Mexico, 2. South Dakota, 3. Iowa, 4. North Dakota and 5. Kentucky

North Dakota recently added a felony animal abuse charge, but Green said it'll likely make the "Worst Five" this year as well.

"There's always room for improvement, even if a state already treats animal cruelty as a felony," Green said.

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