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2:23 PM Sun, Nov. 18th

Bill would make animal cruelty a harsher felony

Tougher classification would take sentencing decision from judges

Yavapai Humane Society volunteer Rebecca Peasley works with Aspen and Willow, two Australian Shepherds, on interacting with people. Willow and Aspen are two of the 40 dogs that were removed from a home in Seligman in an animal cruelty case in 2010. The state is currently looking to toughen up animal cruelty laws. (Courier file photo)

Yavapai Humane Society volunteer Rebecca Peasley works with Aspen and Willow, two Australian Shepherds, on interacting with people. Willow and Aspen are two of the 40 dogs that were removed from a home in Seligman in an animal cruelty case in 2010. The state is currently looking to toughen up animal cruelty laws. (Courier file photo)

Linking the crime to domestic violence, a Senate panel voted Thursday to expand state laws of what constitutes animal abuse and demand harsher penalties.

Existing law already makes it a Class 6 felony to intentionally or knowingly inflict unnecessary physical injury to an animal. The same penalty — a year in state prison — applies to those who subject any animal to cruel mistreatment.

Senate Bill 1295 would create a special Class 5 felony for subjecting pets to cruel mistreatment. And the same penalty would apply for killing a pet without the owner’s consent.

“Class 6 felonies can always be designated a misdemeanor, even after a jury conviction. There are clearly cases where animal abuse arises to the level of a class 5 felony and should be punished accordingly,” Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said.

“This legislation is an important step to making our community safer for both animals and people,” said Elisabeth Haugen, spokeswoman for the Yavapai Humane Society, adding that it is “well-documented as to the connection of animal cruelty and domestic violence — countless studies have proven that those with a pattern of domestic violence often also have a history of animal abuse.”

Deputy Pima County Attorney Kathleen Mayer conceded the difference in sentences is only six months. But she told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that judges are free to decide that Class 6 felonies should instead be sentenced as misdemeanors and placed on probation.

What makes that important, she said, is that misdemeanor probation is unsupervised, meaning people are not required to get treatment. But a judge can require those convicted of Class 5 felonies to get help to deal with issues of anger and lack of empathy.

“Researchers are finding significant correlations between animal abuse, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, elder abuse and other forms of violence,” Polk said. “A few years ago, our office prosecuted a horrible case of domestic violence and animal abuse.

“The abuser intentionally tortured the victim’s dog in the driveway as she was trying to escape the abusive relationship. His abuse of her dog was his attempt to prevent her from leaving the violent relationship. Ultimately, he slammed the dog on the cement driveway, killing the animal and showing her what he could do to her.”

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery told lawmakers this is about more than animals.

“Animal abusers are five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people than non-abusers,” he said, “and 70 percent of those charged with cruelty to animals were known to police for other violent behavior, including homicide.”

The links, Montgomery said, are even more telling.

“While not every abuser becomes a serial killer, almost every serial killer has in their history some history of animal abuse,” he said.

Montgomery said that’s why prosecutors want to find these people before their violence accelerates.

That sentiment was echoed by Carrie Borgen, executive director of the Sojourner Center which helps victims of domestic violence. She cited a study that states a person’s history of pet abuse “is one of the foremost indicators of who is greatest at risk of becoming a batterer.”

The main opposition came from Patrick Bray, lobbyist for the Arizona Cattleman’s Association.

He worried that the language of the measure was so broad that it could be used to charge ranchers with felonies if they kill dogs that are chasing their cattle.

And Bray said there has been at least one such case already brought against a rancher under even the existing laws.

Mayer, however, told lawmakers that the key to whether someone faces a charge depends on the individual circumstances. She said that the key to any animal abuse law is whether someone inflicts “unnecessary” physical injury.

Montgomery said Arizona law contains various “justification” defenses to crimes. So, for example, he said anyone charged with killing an animal could argue that they acted in defense of themselves or others.

That still did not convince Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa. He questioned what would happen if a pet owner decided to kill his or her own animal after learning, after the fact, it had harmed someone else. Mayer said there would be no crime committed.

“It is not against the law to humanely dispatch an animal,” she said.

The 6-1 vote sends the measure to the full Senate.

Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services is a veteran journalist covering Arizona news since 1982.