My View: Lawmakers and governor have shirked their duties as more animals suffer

Last year heralded some great victories for animals in Oregon — but also some equally devastating tragedies, reminding us that even though Oregon consistently ranks high for animal protection, there is still substantial room for improvement in our animal protection laws.

In August 2012, our appellate court recognized animals as individual victims of crimes committed by their owners — in so ruling, the court noted that animals are sentient beings who experience pain when starved, beaten, molested or abandoned. To many Oregonians, this is merely common sense, but such recognition from our judicial system was a major step forward in cases where animals are subjected to cruelty.

Now, abusers of multiple animals, from hoarders to puppy mill owners, can be convicted of separate counts for each animal they harm — the practical impact is very real for many reasons, not the least of which is that now first-time offenders convicted of abusing multiple animals will no longer be able to get their criminal record sealed.

However, while Oregon has strong cruelty laws on the books, prohibiting a wide spectrum of egregious behavior, we still fail companion animals by inadequately punishing those who do them harm. For example, in what can only be characterized as an abject outrage, an Oregon trial court judge simply cannot sentence offenders convicted of aggravated felony animal abuse cases (even those cases involving the most egregious cruelty you can possibly imagine) to prison.

Picture a neglected dog infested with maggots, her matted fur so severely tangled in knots over her entire body that she hasn’t been able to open her eyes for months where her painful howls finally anger her owner to the point that her owner opts to “euthanize” her by stabbing her with a pair of scissors. Once convicted of aggravated animal abuse, the trial judge cannot put this menace in prison — probation and/or a short stint in the local jail is the only option. This pathetic outcome remains unaltered in cases with offenders who have 10-page rap sheets.

Unfortunately the same outcome holds true in cases with domestic violence overtones. For example, imagine a boyfriend who becomes angry at his girlfriend and then, in front of their child, drags the family’s pet cat by his tail out to the yard, douses him with lighter fluid and sets the screeching feline ablaze. In Oregon, this man, regardless of how bad his criminal history might be, will never receive one day of prison time in Oregon.

The same goes for hoarding hundreds of cats in a trailer, uninhabitable from the stench of ammonia and waste; abandoning a horse to slowly starve to death, her ribs protruding from its emaciated body; or sexually molesting a dog. Assuming these acts were indictable as felonies in Oregon (and sadly they are not, but that’s another story) under the current felony sentencing guidelines, none would result in prison time, period. And, to add insult to injury, our governor is in the process of trying to further water down our sentencing laws as we speak.

The governor’s disappointing agenda notwithstanding, stricter sentencing laws are the obvious fix here. Like it or not, real exposure to meaningful prison terms deters animal cruelty while protecting our communities and ensuring justice for the victims. It defies logic that someone who commits the most violent acts imaginable cannot be sent to prison simply because their conduct is directed at members of our families who happen to be non-human victims.

For those people who reject any notion of animal sentiency, the research is undisputed: Those who abuse animals are at least five times more likely to commit other violent crimes against humans. Thus, it is fair to conclude that the vast majority of Oregonians will agree that we simply must change Oregon’s laughable felony sentencing guidelines.

Enter Senate President Peter Courtney, who has set out to do precisely that by sponsoring Senate Bill 6, which addresses several shortcomings in Oregon’s animal cruelty laws. One of the bill’s marquee features is the amendment of the felony sentencing guidelines to finally give trial judges the legal authority to put these violent offenders in prison where they belong.

In addition to SB 6, the Legislature is considering other important improvements to Oregon’s animal protection laws, including House Bill 2745, which would give citizens the express right to step in and stop ongoing acts of animal cruelty in the same way that they can currently halt prostitution, gambling, and drug dealers — by filing a civil nuisance abatement action.

Yes, law enforcement can and will address these cases as criminal acts. However, the Civil Rights Act, the Endangered Species Act and a long list of environmental statutes all contain express language empowering citizens to sue to enforce these laws in civil court, because Congress has long-recognized that empowering the people to file suit ensures aggressive enforcement of the law once it is on the books. That is precisely what HB 2745 does.

Though Oregon has much to celebrate when it comes to the legal state of our pets, we still have much to improve upon — and we owe it to our companion animals to deliver the protection they deserve.

Let’s get it done: Come on down to Salem and testify in support of SB 6 and HB 2745 — let your voice be heard loud and clear in demanding that (1) trial judges be given the legal authority to put those who abuse Oregon’s companion animals in prison and (2) you have the legal right to go to civil court and stop animal cruelty independently of what the police might (or might not) be able to do.

Scott Heiser, a former district attorney of Benton County, runs the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Criminal Justice Program and teaches criminal procedure as applied in animal cruelty cases as an adjunct professor at Lewis & Clark Law School.

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