Throwing the Book at Animal Abusers: More States Crack Down on Cruelty

While it has been necessary to fend off numerous attacks on animal welfare in state legislatures this year (See Spring 2011 AWI Quarterly), there have also been positive developments benefitting animals.

At the top of the list: Nevada has substantially strengthened its animal cruelty laws. Where once even egregious acts did not rise to a felony until a third offense within seven years, now persons who "torture or unjustifiably maim, mutilate or kill" a dog, cat, or other animal "kept for companionship or pleasure" will be guilty of a category D felony on the first offense. In another bold move, the law makes it an (even more serious) category C felony to commit such acts "in order to threaten, intimidate or terrorize another person... ." This clearly acknowledges the relationship between animal abuse and other crimes, especially domestic violence, and provides prosecutors with a powerful tool for both punishing crimes against animal victims and preventing crimes against human victims.

The legislation was enacted in response to the brutal torture and death of Cooney - a dog adopted from a shelter - at the hands of an owner who could only be charged with a misdemeanor under the old law. Cooney was not the only victim of this individual, who had a history of violence towards both animals and people. In a letter to the Assembly committee, his former wife told how he had tortured the family hamster "as an example of what he would do to [her] if she left him."

Mississippi became the 47th state to enact a felony animal cruelty law, albeit one that is not altogether satisfactory. Even the sponsor of the bill, Sen. Bob Dearing (D-Natchez) acknowledges that what finally passed could be improved, explaining that, "The bill signed into law, SB 2821, did not include 'kill' as a provision for aggravated cruelty; it also states that multiple abuse of cats or dogs is treated as a single offense, and, finally, aggravated cruelty is not a felony until the second offense." In the next session of the legislature, Sen. Dearing plans to introduce a new bill to address these problems. Several other important changes were made to Mississippi law as it addresses animal cruelty: Courts may order psychological counseling for abusers and ban them from working with animals. Shelters that care for animals involved in abuse cases will be able to receive reimbursement for their expenses from the offender. Misdemeanor penalties are established for abuse and neglect of all animals, and for the first time, confining dogs outside without adequate shelter is prohibited.

In Hawaii, a new law makes it a felony to attend or wager on a dogfight or to possess a device intended to train a dog for fighting; previously, only those who staged dogfights, trained or owned dogs for dogfighting, or allowed their property to be used for dogfights could be charged with a felony. Unfortunately, cockfighting remains a misdemeanor.

Until recently, New York was one of only five U.S. states with no laws to regulate trade in bear parts. As poaching of American bears for traditional Asian medicines rises, traders target these lax states to hunt bears and sell their parts. A single gallbladder might fetch thousands of dollars on the domestic black market.

Fortunately, a bill just passed the New York State Legislature that would ban the "possession, sale, barter, offer, purchase, transportation, delivery, or receipt of bear gallbladder, bile, or any product, item, or substance containing, or labeled or advertised as containing, bear gallbladders or bile." Once the bill becomes law (as is expected after this issue goes to press), New York will join 34 other states that prohibit trade in bear gallbladders and bile. (Eleven other states regulate trade in bear parts in some manner short of an absolute prohibition.)