Animal advocates, vets urge stronger cruelty laws

Published 5:00 am Monday, August 2, 2004

Animal rights advocates are expected to renew their push for thestate to strengthen its animal cruelty laws when the Legislaturegoes back into general session.

“I know there are a lot of abused animals out there,” said BethAdcock, a member of the Brookhaven Animal Rescue League’s board ofdirectors. “We get a lot of calls even with our small organization.And these are just the ones we hear about that are reported.”

A bill to make animal cruelty a felony was narrowly defeated inthe 2004 session when it failed to pass both houses. The law passedin the Senate, but died in the House. The wording was changed andagain received Senate approval, but failed to pass in a Housecommittee when it was attached to another, more controversial,bill.

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The state’s blanket animal cruelty law was last amended in 1997.It is a misdemeanor offense with a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fineand/or imprisonment of up to six months. Another cruelty law,malicious injury to dogs, has the same penalties. Both laws alsoallow the seizure of the animals for placement in other homes andrequire the owners cover all costs of bringing the animals back togood health. They also limit future ownership.

Neither law has additional penalties for subsequentoffenses.

Additional laws add carrying a creature in a cruel manner andconfining creatures without food or water as misdemeanor acts.

Every state has an anti-cruelty statute. It is a felony crime inat least 31 states.

Adcock cited a recent case in Lincoln County as an example ofthe need for a tougher law.

The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department seized a registered2-year-old Paint horse and a 1-year-old donkey from the LakeLincoln community residence in June because of neglect.

The animals were suffering from starvation while being kept in acorral bereft of grass or hay and had untended open sores.

According to Deputy Sudie Palomarez, the deputy who supervisedthe case, the animals had been neglected for “at least sixmonths.”

“This is an example of what goes on in the state that people getaway with,” Adcock said. “It can’t go on. The legislature needs toget together and take a look at this.”

According to Dr. Bob Watson of Brookhaven Animal Hospital, the2004 Mississippi Veterinary Medical Association Veterinarian of theYear, most veterinarians are also interested in seeing a crueltylaw passed. However, he added, they believe particular attentionmust be paid to the wording of the bill to ensure it is not laterused to make veterinarians the target of lawsuits.

“Veterinarians are grossly misunderstood as being against animalcruelty laws. That is just not so,” he said. “The veterinariancommunity as a whole is absolutely in support of those laws.”

However, Watson said, the first bill before the statelegislature labeled pet owners as “guardians.” That phrase has beeninterpreted in other states to move animals from being viewed asproperty to humanizing them, which gives them undeniablerights.

It is a legal issue that has caused some severe problems inother states, he said, and he hoped Mississippi would learn fromtheir example when passing its own laws.

As property, he said, in the event of preventable death ownersare entitled to the “real value” of the pet, which includestangible damages such as medical expenses and future income fromthe potential to breed. But when the pet is anthromorphized andgiven undeniable rights it opens veterinarians up to lawsuits fornon-tangible damages such as pain and suffering and emotionaltrauma.

Watson, who has never been sued, said veterinarians generallyhave no problem satisfying a patient or going to court should theymisdiagnose, mistreat or abuse an animal. However, the animalmedical system in states that anthropomorphized animals havedemonstrated that the system becomes as abused as the human medicalsystem, where frivolous lawsuits for non-tangible damages are seenin court almost daily and have awarded large damages of more than$500,000.

“If I make a mistake that results in the death of someone’sanimal, they deserve to be compensated. I believe that,” he said.”But they’ve demonstrated in other states that the system can beabused.”

Animal rights activists had no trouble in understanding theirposition and changing the wording of the original bill by replacing”guardian” with “pet owner,” he said.

It is only a matter of time before a strengthened bill getspassed, Watson said, and he said he expects the revised bill thatfailed in the House committee will pass unchanged in the nextlegislative session.

“I see this bill getting through eventually,” he said. “Thisstate is desperately in need of it. I’ve witnessed some horriblethings.”