ANNAPOLIS – A bill to make animal abuse a felony was introduced by Delegate Joan Stern, D-Montgomery, to heighten awareness about the link between animal abuse and potential violent criminals.
Stern was motivated to propose the bill after learning about the link between animal abuse and other acts of violence, she said.
“There is no justification for abusing an animal,” Stern said. “This is a bill that will save lives.”
In the 1998 school slayings in Oregon and Arkansas, the suspects had a history of killing cats and dogs, according to published reports. In some domestic violence cases, officers found household pets battered.
“There is a hierarchy of abuse,” said Col. Margaret Patten, research and development chief for the Baltimore Police Department. “The husband beats wife; the wife beats child; and the child lashes out at the pet.”
Police officers are learning to see animal abuse as a sign of other kinds of abuse in families, Patten said. In Baltimore, police guidelines require officers to look for signs of animal abuse when they are called to settle disputes.
“There is so much to animal abuse that people don’t know,” Patten said. “Some people say, `Oh, it’s just animals, how frivolous,’ but it’s not. If someone is abusing a pet, they may not hesitate to abuse a human being.”
Animal advocates and protection agencies hope by making animal abuse a felony the crime will warrant more serious attention from authorities. Police departments are more likely to keep statistics on felonies. And felonies are closely scrutinized in court.
“As a felony it will be dealt with in a very timely and serious manner,” said Nicky Ratliff, president of the state’s Association of Animal Control Agencies and Human Organizations.
“If I come into your yard and throw a bucket of gasoline onto your lawnmower and burn it up, that is a felony,” under current law, she said. “If I poured gasoline on your dog and lit the match, it’s a misdemeanor.”
In 27 states animal cruelty is a felony.
Under current laws, animal abusers face a penalty of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail. The proposed law, if passed, would increase the fine to $25,000 and the jail time to three years.
Stern’s bill could be heard in the House early next month.
According to Geroge Whiting, the associate director of the animal management division for Prince George’s County, professionals handle nearly 5,000 animal cruelty cases each year in Prince George’s County alone.
Officers usually correct the abusive situation by giving advice or trying to seize animals, said Whiting, who supports the bill.
“There are people that do really nasty things to animals and we need a strong way to deal with that,” he said.
Last year, Stern co-sponsored an animal cruelty bill, but it was amended to only protect police dogs, she said.
In Montgomery County, there was a case last year where some passing motorists were able to save several retired racing greyhounds that were about to be killed. The motorists blocked action until authorities could rescue the animals, Stern said.
“There are some people who don’t believe animal abuse should be a felony,” said Stern, who owned a dog for 16 years until she died last year. “I think it’s a very serious crime. Just slapping someone on the wrist is not adequate.”
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