It’s time to strengthen our animal-abuse laws

Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

A story that ran in this newspaper over the weekend was enough to make a person feel physically ill. A 10-week-old terrier puppy was found in Bentleyville with a 5-inch metal rod stuck through his head and eye sockets. Thanks to some expert medical care at University Veterinary Specialists in Peters Township, the pup – dubbed Justice by a local group raising money to cover expenses – will survive and is likely to be able to see, at least out of one eye.

There undoubtedly have been conversations across our area the last couple of days about what should be done to the person who did this to the puppy, if that person is ever caught. But under current Pennsylvania law, our legal system would fail to dish out what most people would call justice, for Justice.

State Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, an Erie Democrat who is trying again to win passage of legislation to upgrade our state’s animal cruelty law, notes that the penalty for stealing a couple of quarters from a car is greater than that for stabbing a dog. Steal 50 cents from a vehicle, and you could receive a jail sentence of up to a year and a fine of $2,000. Stabbing a dog, just a summary offense, would carry a maximum penalty of a $750 fine and 90 days behind bars. And under current law, the stabber can get his or her dog back.

This weakness in our animal-protection laws was illustrated this week in Stroudsburg, when a breeder of English mastiffs got just two weeks in jail for trying to kill a dog by hitting her with a hammer and stabbing her multiple times in an attempt to put the animal down. Why was the man trying to “euthanize” the dog? It had given birth to stillborn puppies.

All across the state, cases of animal cruelty often end with the imposition of a paltry fine. In our area, cases in which someone has gotten jail time for abusing animals are as scarce as hen’s teeth.

Last year, Bizzarro’s House Bill 869, which has been reintroduced this year as HB13, passed the state Senate and twice made it out of the House Rules Committee, but the full House was never given the chance to vote on the final product, and the bill died with the end of the legislative session.

As reported by last fall, HB 869, as amended by the Senate, would have included:

• Anyone who knowingly or recklessly abuses, mistreats or neglects an animal would face a citation upon first offense or a misdemeanor for subsequent offenses.

• Anyone who commits aggravated animal cruelty that results in serious bodily injury to an animal would face a felony.

• There would be new limits to the length of time and conditions during which an unattended dog could be tethered outdoors. A dog could not be tethered for more than nine hours within a 24-hour period, nor for longer than 30 minutes when temperatures are above 90 degrees or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Violations would be punishable by a fine between $200 and $750 and any other expenses, including court, shelter and veterinary costs.

• Dogs kept outdoors would have to be provided with a moisture-proof shelter of adequate size with insulation or shade from heat and cold.

• Any conviction of a misdemeanor or felony would result in the surrender of the abused animal to an animal society or association.

According to Bizzarro, Pennsylvania, Idaho and Iowa are the only states that “fail to provide meaningful penalties for first-time animal-abuse offenders and safeguards for animals.”

It is our hope that our lawmakers will make it a priority to correct this, and to protect animals that are unable to protect themselves. Justice, and other animals like him, deserve justice.