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?
“There's never been much dissent from the fundamental principle — but the difference between a lofty goal and a law is substantial,” McDaniel said in an interview. “In the bills that have been submitted in the past — all of which had good goals and purposes to them — the actual language had not been through the vetting process that we have dedicated to this bill.”
The AG's office spent close to a year on the bill, going through more than 40 drafts and consulting each interest group every time a major change was made.
“We've tried to be open-minded and reasonable and if someone made a point that we had not considered, we would modify it,” McDaniel said. “But every time you change a comma you have to bring those people together, and they're distrustful of one another and I don't think there's any secret to that.”
Past distrust came from legitimate differences between the opposing sides, but some of it seems to have resulted from a lack of communication between the interested parties.
Simpson said McDaniel has done a good job of bringing groups together.
“I haven't been really trusting in the past because it was like you had the animal people over here and the farmers over there and the ranchers over there and we all had a wall between us,” she said. “In the past, I've had people walk up to me and say, ‘We'll give you this if you give us that.' That's not how it should be. It should be, ‘What can we do to reach an agreement?' ”
McDaniel said he and his staff realized early on that finding consensus would be difficult.
“It's the kind of thing that you would never get done in a committee setting, in a short legislative session, or in a high pressure environment. It was the kind of thing that was going to have to take hours on the phone over the course of weeks and months,” he said.
Farmers' main interest was to make sure normal agricultural practices were clearly defined and exempted from punishment.
Earl Pepper, the state equine commissioner for the Farm Bureau, was included in discussions regarding the bill's wording and said this time there was more give and take. “Farm Bureau has gotten a bit of a black eye on this in the past, and I think that goes back to the misconceptions and the distrust,” Pepper said. “I really don't think anyone at Farm Bureau is for being cruel to an animal, but there were some points there that needed to be clarified and I think this piece of legislation does it.”
Pepper said that a good bill would clearly define and exempt practices like branding cattle or putting down an animal, which SB77 does.
He also brought up another hot-button issue that has helped to kill the bill in the past: the fear of national groups like PETA descending on the state to prosecute farmers.
Madison said those fears were probably a little misplaced.
“I think the big fear of the Farm Bureau has been that this is a nose-under-the-tent kind of thing,” she said. “They thought if this thing is passed then pretty soon we won't be able to butcher a cow any more. We'll have to give up eating steaks, or the PETA people will all land in Arkansas. There has been no PETA involvement in this issue ever, when I've worked on it. I think a lot of people worry about the PETA folks, but there's nothing in here that's going to jeopardize agriculture in Arkansas, in any way.”
Under the current law, animal protection agencies have the authority to make arrests on misdemeanor animal cruelty charges. The new bill would place the authority to make arrests in the hands of law enforcement officials only. Simpson said that has always been a sticking point for opponents of the bill, but that the power to make arrests is not something the animal groups have ever really needed.
“When this is said and done, the same people are going to be working the abuse cases that have always worked them,” she said.
At the press conference to announce the filing of the bill, Madison stated emphatically, “These atrocities have to stop!” She said animal abuse should be “brought into the same arena” as domestic violence, where it is considered to be a crime, investigated like a crime, and punished like a crime.
“I don't want to see any more dogs skinned alive in this state,” she said, referring to an incident in 2007 in which a Benton woman found her dog skinned. The animal had to be euthanized. “And I hope that people understand that if you go around stomping puppies and poking them with cattle prods, then you're looking at jail time. If you chain a dog to a tree in the woods and leave them, you could be looking at a prison sentence, fines and a felony record. I think this is going to be a big deterrent.”
And that's the big question. Will it actually be a deterrent? McDaniel said yes.
“I think that the 46 states that currently have felony animal cruelty laws and have kept up with their enforcement and their arrests have seen that it's been an important tool. That's the reason additional states have sought to follow their lead because — as with any crime — enforcement is its own deterrent,” McDaniel said.
As an animal cruelty investigator, Simpson thinks that prosecutors have been waiting for tougher penalties to enforce.
“I think law enforcement is going to look at this like, hey, this has teeth now. They're not just going to let people go for this kind of stuff and that's going to make a huge difference,” she said.
McDaniel said he would dedicate $250,000 from his Education and Enforcement fund to help educate law enforcement officers on how to identify animal cruelty.
For now, all the interest groups seem to be appeased. McDaniel announced the legislation at a press conference last week attended by a diverse group — farmers, legislators, animal protection groups and representatives from Game and Fish, the Pulaski County Humane Society, and Farm Bureau. Assuming the bill makes it through the Senate, House Judiciary Committee chair Steve Harrelson said he doesn't foresee any major obstacles in getting the bill passed.
Some of the parties who worked on the bill, though they can live with it, see room for improvement. Simpson, for example, said aggravated assault against any animal should be a felony, but the bill is a good starting place.
Timothy the Shih-Tzu was lucky. Even though both of his eyes had to be removed, owner Debra Wood said he gets around just fine. “It really amazes me how well he's adapted,” she said. “I tell people all the time, it's not challenging to be an owner of a puppy mill dog, but it is challenging to understand how our society lets these so-called human beings get away with treating innocent animals this way. Timothy wasn't born this way; someone did this to him. There's just no excuse.”
Videos and extended interviews at www.arktimes.com.