When the General Assembly passed a law earlier this year to make acts of aggravated animal cruelty a felony in Arkansas, Kay Simpson, director of the Humane Society of Pulaski County, cried.
The legislative action brought to an end a long-running battle between animal rights groups and farming interests. Those who neglected or intentionally harmed animals would now suffer stiffer penalties and the threat of felony charges would be a deterrent. It was a happy day for those, like Simpson, who had fought so long to protect animals from abuse.
The bill passed easily, though similar versions had failed in previous sessions. Enforcing it, however, may prove to be more difficult.
The law goes into effect July 31, 90 days after the end of the legislative session.
One major problem will be finding space to house animals seized in abuse cases or puppy mill raids.
“I'm not doing any abuse cases right now because we're just tapped out,” Simpson said in an interview. “We get the calls from different counties all over the state. When there's a cruelty case, we're the ones that house the animals. And that's the same thing that's going to happen after the law goes into effect. Sheriff's departments don't have any room to take them. They don't have the funding to pay for the feed, the medical care, anything.”
Animals that have been seized must remain in the state's care until their owners are brought to trial. For shelters, that long-term placement poses a significant financial burden.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who with his staff crafted the legislation over the course of nearly a year, said the question of where to house animals has been, and will continue to be, an issue.
“If a police officer charges you with possession of cocaine, which is a felony, it's pretty easy to put the cocaine in a locker until trial,” McDaniel said. “If they charge you with felony abuse of a German shepherd they can work up the case, take photographs and preserve evidence, but a living, breathing creature can't simply be put into an evidence locker.”
The law requires that those charged with animal cruelty post a bond. Those bonds would, ideally, help the shelters cover the costs of vet care, pet food and housing the animals. But according to Simpson, in most cases the owners just abandon the pets, leaving them in the shelter's care.
“Most of these people knew they couldn't afford the animals in the first place, so how are they going to afford to post a bond?” Simpson said. “And the counties aren't helping us. No county that I can think of has ever given us a bale of hay, sack of feed, dog food, nothing.”
Few counties in Arkansas operate animal shelters. Those that do are constantly full or over capacity, Simpson said. In today's faltering economy, people are dropping off animals they can no longer afford. Humane Society shelters, like the one in Pulaski County, rely on donations to operate, and those are down sharply from a year ago.
Simpson said counties should set funds aside to handle their animal cruelty cases. “Counties are going to have to figure out a way to pay because humane societies can't do it and there's got to be a plan,” she said. “Restitution from court cases is nearly non-existent and when we do get it, it's not much. I just got a check in the mail today from a case that started in 2007.”
Simpson, one of only a few certified animal cruelty investigators in Arkansas, said it is critical that the state's law enforcement officers be trained to deal with cruelty cases. The attorney general's office, in fact, allotted $250,000 for the Criminal Justice Institute to develop a curriculum to train officers. But just weeks before the new penalties are set to go into effect, that money has not been disbursed and the CJI has yet to develop a curriculum for training officers.
McDaniel said he has requested that those funds be distributed, but Beth Green, CJI publications specialist, said the agency has not yet received the money. She said the institute was developing a curriculum and should have something in place by the fall.
“I'm just getting frustrated with folks who don't seem to be getting a game plan together,” Simpson said. “It's great that we got the felony charge we were working toward, but there's a problem when you get a bigger fine and a bigger jail sentence and it's still not going to give you anything to help out with the animals.”
Despite the hurdles law enforcement agencies and shelters are likely to face, McDaniel said there's no question as to whether or not the law should have been passed.
“Do we acknowledge that some counties really have facilities issues? Yeah, but that's no reason not to pass a tougher law,” McDaniel said. “If you're suggesting that we shouldn't have increased the penalties on animal cruelty because it's hard enough to enforce as it is, then that's an argument I wasn't willing to accept.”
Simpson just hopes a solution is found soon.
“We've run into a brick wall,” she said. “We've come across a problem we can't fix. And that's something that's never happened before. I've always figured out a way to manage, but I can't do that anymore.”