A good and bad week for animal lovers in Mississippi
Last week brought good news and bad news for animal lovers in Mississippi. First, the bad: Two bills that would have strengthened laws against people who abuse pet dogs and cats died in legislative committees.
State Senator Angela Burks Hill of Picayune sponsored one of the bills, continuing an effort she began a couple of years ago. Her local sheriff’s department had contacted her after a case that involved 70 mistreated dogs.
“They were only able to charge one misdemeanor count no matter the level of abuse/neglect or the number of dogs affected,” she told me.
Her bill, she said, would have allowed up to 10 counts per incident whether simple or aggravated cruelty, as well as allowing “the heinous crimes like malicious torture, burning, scalding, maiming, dismemberment to become first-offense felonies instead of second-conviction felonies.”
She had support from all manner of animal advocacy groups, she said, along with the state police chiefs association and lots of county sheriffs.
It didn’t help.
But now, the good news.
Another of Hill’s bills, to create a statewide online registry of people convicted of abusing pet dogs or cats, did make it out of committee.
Debra Boswell, executive director of the Mississippi Animal Rescue League, said the registry could help solve one of the problems with current law, which requires a second conviction for aggravated cruelty before the crime becomes a felony. First convictions – misdemeanors – are often in Justice Courts, with no record kept.
“You can do an aggravated cruelty in Hinds County, one in Madison, one in Rankin … you can set a dog on fire in all three of those counties and there’s no way to track previous offenses,” Boswell said.
“It’s basically been a pretty good law that’s worked for us and law enforcement fairly well,” Boswell said. “It was just time to tweak it a little.”
Under the bill the maximum fine would increase to $10,000 from $5,000, with maximum possible prison time doubling to 10 years from five.
Penalties for spectators would not change: a maximum of $5,000 and one year in prison, or both. But Mississippi is already one of the few states that can charge spectators with a felony.
“We wanted to listen to each other, basically,” she said. “We came away feeling really good about the meeting. So maybe next year we might look at something that all of us can be happy with.”
Boswell, who has been active in animal issues for about 40 years, is encouraged by gains that have already been made in Mississippi, including the Dog and Cat Pet Protection Law from 2011 that Hill wants to bolster.
Continued progress, Boswell said, will rely on animal advocates operating with their heads as well as their hearts. “It’s no good to pass a law that’s not workable.”
And both Boswell and Hill note that abuse laws seek to protect more than just animals.
“The stats are clear,” Hill said. “Animal abusers generally move on to humans.”