Animal cruelty bill gets unleashed 

Kay Simpson has seen horrors she'll never forget.

In October last year, for example, the director of the Pulaski County Humane Society made a visit to a puppy mill in Lonsdale, responding to numerous complaints about conditions there. Simpson, other certified animal inspectors and deputies from the Saline County Sheriff's Office, found 40 dogs packed into a tiny 12-by-20-foot windowless shed, some crowded into cages stacked on top of one another. Urine and feces surrounded the dogs, there was little to no clean water for them to drink and their food was infested with maggots and other filth.  

Puppy mills like this one are not uncommon. After making money off of a few puppies, some breeders get greedy. They buy more dogs in order to sell more puppies. Before they realize it, they have more than they can take care of and the dogs end up living in squalor.

One of the dogs, Timothy, a Shih-Tzu, was suffering from a festering eye infection caused by the filthy conditions. Like most of the dogs, he was adopted, but has since lost both eyes.

The owner of the puppy mill was charged with 53 counts of animal cruelty, a misdemeanor offense. Conviction would be punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 per count and up to a year in prison.

Arkansas is one of only four states that don't have a felony charge for animal cruelty. Those charged with misdemeanors, Simpson said, usually don't get the maximum penalty. “When you deal with some of the things that we deal with, like starvation and collars grown into necks, there needs to be a penalty for treating animals that way, there really does.”

Under legislation hammered out by a coalition of animal rescue groups, farmers and other interested parties and introduced last week, animal cruelty would be a Class D felony with much stiffer penalties — a maximum fine of $10,000 and up to six years in jail. Unlike previous bills, fought by the Farm Bureau and other interests, this one is expected to pass.

In 2002, 62 percent of Arkansans voted against an initiated act on the November ballot that would have made severe acts of animal cruelty a felony. During the 2007 General Assembly, two animal cruelty bills failed. One draft, supported by state Sen. Sue Madison, the current bill's lead sponsor, called for a first-offense felony charge for animal cruelty. The other, favored by the Farm Bureau, was less stringent and called for a felony charge on the second offense. 

This time around, it looks like Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has brokered a deal between the once warring animal protection and farm factions. Groups on both sides admit SB77 is not perfect, but it's something they can live with.

Filed last week, the bill calls for a felony charge of aggravated animal cruelty on the first offense when committed against a dog, cat or horse. The bill defines animal cruelty as: mistreating an animal, killing or injuring an animal that is not your own, abandonment, starvation, failure to provide adequate shelter, or dragging an animal behind a vehicle. Other notable changes include stiffer penalties when abuse is committed in front of a child, increased penalties for subsequent misdemeanor charges (the fourth misdemeanor charge would result in a felony) and required psychological evaluations for offenders. The bill would also outlaw all animal fighting; only dog fighting is currently illegal. 

McDaniel expects speedy passage and little organized opposition. The day it was filed, the bill had 58 co-sponsors, including majority support from the judiciary committees of both houses. With such a broad coalition —Farm Bureau, the Arkansas Poultry Federation, the Game and Fish Commission, the Humane Society of the United States, the Rescue Wranglers, Feline Rescue and Rehome, just to name a few — now in place, one obvious question is why did it take so long?



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