Animal abuse law addressed in Senate subcommittee

Senate Study Bill 1075 was passed through subcommittee by all three Iowa Senators on Wednesday.

The bill amends Code Chapter 717B prohibiting the mistreatment of certain animals, including dogs and cats, but excluding other animals such as livestock, game, fur-bearing animals, fish, reptiles or amphibians, unless such animal is owned, confined and controlled by a person, or a non-game animal declared to be a nuisance by the natural resource commission.

Specifically addressed by the bill are sections of code that include animal abuse, animal neglect and animal torture. It creates two new non-primary criminal offenses, including animal abandonment and animal endangerment.

Under this bill, the primary offenses include an enhanced penalty that applies to a convicted person who has previously committee any of the primary or non-primary offenses classified as animal mistreatment, or committed a non-code chapter offense including bestiality or an offense involving an animal contest.

Animal abuse involves intentionally injuring an animal by violence or poisoning. This bill expands the intent element by adding acting either knowingly or recklessly. It removes a provision that exempts a person who acted with the consent of the animal’s owner.

It also provides that the aggravated misdemeanor may be enhanced to a class D felony.
Senator Brad Zaun chaired the subcommittee and was joined by fellow Republican Sen. Dan Dawson and Democrat Sen. Tony Bisignano.

Tom Colvin of the Animal Rescue League of Iowa said the group is very supportive of the bill.

“I appreciate very much that we have this discussion,” he said. “We think that this answers a lot of the questions and challenges that have been going on with particularly egregious situations happening around the state of Iowa when it comes to companion animals — not livestock.”

Colin Grace is the Animal Rescue League of Iowa’s in-house counsel. He said the bill would be a tremendous help when it comes to prosecuting laws already on Iowa’s books.

“I have been here since October, but I can already tell that it’s fairly difficult to enforce the laws as written,” he said. “The changes 1075 makes are going to be necessary if we’re actually going to be prosecuting the laws on the books.”

Grace noted that under current Iowa law, an owner cannot abuse their own animal.

“That, to me, seems absurd,” he said. “Doing away with the sadistic and depraved intent language (helps). The Iowa Court of Appeals has already told us that standard doesn’t really have a lot of precedent and there’s difficulty understanding what that language meant.”

Jill Altringer with Iowa Federation of Animal Owners had some concerns with language in the bill.

“Our breeders raise dogs to be in your family to be animals that are cared for and loved,” Altringer said. “We want that. We want some more clarity to make sure it doesn’t become a mechanism…right now everyone sitting at this table wants to address animal abuse and torture. We want to make sure when different people are sitting in different positions it’s not going to put breeders out of business with this legislation.”

Sen. Zaun assured that is not the intent of the bill.

David Scott of Iowa Federation of Animal Owners said he’s currently registered undecided, but would like to register for the bill. He offered an amendment based on similar concerns Altringer expressed.

“It’s not you that our concern is about, it’s someone in one year, five years or 10 years from now coming along and reading Iowa code and determining something in there as code that is animal abuse at that time,” Scott said.

Haley Anderson of Iowa Voters for Companion Animals said it’s a critical issue that doesn’t just increase penalties but also addresses loopholes in current law.

“We certainly don’t want to put anyone out of business,” she said.

Susan Cameron Daemen with Iowa State Sheriffs’ & Deputies’ Association said law enforcement empathizes with the problems, but said there’s a need for animal control officers in Iowa.

“Resources are so stressed in law enforcement,” she said. “There are so many things they have to be working on, from domestic violence, human trafficking, drugs. We really need to address this properly and have the right kinds of people trained.”

Betsy Fickel of Garner spoke in strong opposition to the bill. Her main concern is today’s bill will turn into an attack on agriculture tomorrow.

“Some of the references are from Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Humane Society — some of their provisions fit exactly within the bill itself,” Fickel said. “Enhancing penalties to becoming a felony — has any thought ever been given to the future of that person and that family even after his sentence has been served? That felony will follow him the rest of his life. These penalties will affect each and every one of us sitting in this room.”

Fickel said she was worried about a nosy neighbor or disgruntled person reporting someone else. She noted a couple years ago in Nebraska a husky was left outside in 20 degree weather and a neighbor turned the owner in for animal abuse.

Finally, she said Iowa’s current laws are working.

“We’re also seeing convictions in those cases,” she said. “Personally I do not support this bill.”

Sen. Bisignano said he began working on a bill five years ago that resembles this one.

“I can only find two things that aren’t in this bill that were in my bill,” he said.

One was making veterinarians mandatory reporters in cases of abuse or torture. Another was requiring DHS visits if abuse is carried out in front of children. He said he could live without those provisions in the bill.

“I do respectfully disagree that our laws today are working,” he said. “When the law says I can beat my own dog, I can’t be charged until I beat my neighbor’s do, I don’t think that’s a very good law. If we did that with children people would be outraged.”

While people are being convicted, he pointed to a recent crime where someone threw a cat into a dumpster. The sentence was 60 or 90 days, but the person only served two days.
With the prospect of unintended consequences, Bisignano said that’s why the legislature meets once a year, so it can address those problems.

Sen. Dawson referred to the legislation as the art of the possible, not necessarily the art of perfection. He referenced a similar bill in a different committee and said he hoped all parties would be able to meet in the middle.

Sen. Zaun noted he was born and raised on a farm, so the last thing he wants to do is hurt agriculture.

“This bill here is not partisan,” he said. “It’s urban versus rural. Rural Iowa is the backbone of Iowa. This is specifically companion animals only and it’s a step. I am not talking to any national groups — they did not write this bill.”

Zaun supported the measure.

“I just want to move some legislation,” he said. “That’s what I want to do. I do believe we have a problem in the state of Iowa. This doesn’t put anybody out of business or anything like that. I’m very enthusiastic to sign this subcommittee report.”