By Amanda Costikyan Jones
WASHINGTON – Some Maryland lawmakers want to turn cockfighters and others who violate animal cruelty laws into felons.
A bill introduced Friday by Delegate George W. Owings III, D-Calvert, would elevate several animal cruelty violations from misdemeanors to felonies.
The bill would also increase penalties and require that anyone convicted receive and pay for “psychological counseling.”
Owings said the changes are needed because people who hurt animals have the potential to hurt people as well.
“Just take your most recent serial killers, and you will find that their behavior began with nonhuman life forms,” Owings said. “From that, they gained the ability to disassociate themselves from the act” of killing.
But some Marylanders who breed fighting cocks — breeding is still legal in Maryland — said the bill targets cockfighters unfairly.
“To tack a felony onto something like that when they’ve got murderers and stuff that they haven’t tried yet” is unreasonable, said Charles Hirschmann of Carroll County, a member of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association.
The association’s Maryland director agreed.
“What they’re trying to do is place animals on the same level as people,” said Joe. The 70-year-old Baltimore businessman did not want his last name used because he feared how clients might react if they learned of his involvement with cockfighting.
“Because of the brainwashing of the humane societies, (some people) have made us all to be degenerate barbarians,” he said.
Joe said he believes in laws that protect cats and dogs from cruelty, but that chickens are not pets and should not be protected as such.
“You eat chickens; you don’t with dogs,” he said. And unlike dogs, Joe said, gamecocks are not forced to fight against their will.
“We don’t hurt animals,” he said.
He said he has worked for years to keep his association’s members from holding illegal cockfights in Maryland because he feared legislation like Owings’.
“I said, we have other places to go. Please do not fight in Maryland,” he said. “If we do and (we) get busted, the first thing they’re going to do is try and make it a felony.”
Owings’ bill might run into trouble in the House Judiciary Committee, which has “historically has been very reluctant to create new felonies,” said Delegate Kenneth C. Montague Jr., D-Baltimore City, a committee member.
“The history of felonies is that they’re generally infamous crimes of very high magnitude, things like murder,” he said.
Another committee member, Delegate Dana Lee Dembrow, D-Montgomery, said creating new felonies could actually undermine the bill’s intent. He said felony cases are sometimes harder for prosecutors to bring and may even result in lighter sentences.
“(When the) docket includes a murder, two rapes and six armed robberies … put it into perspective with the other things that that judge is doing and you may get a lesser sentence,” Dembrow said.
But Owings said that creating new felonies would show that Maryland recognizes the seriousness of animal cruelty.
“I think it’s time to draw attention to the whole issue,” he said.
Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery, a co-sponsor of the bill, said she hopes it passes in some form, even if lawmakers decide not to create new felonies.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “The animals have no recourse and no one to protect them.”
The bill is scheduled for hearing March 9. Dembrow and Montague stressed that committee members will approach it with open minds, and both said they were impressed by the idea of mandatory counseling for offenders.