State senators agree to increase penalties in animal cruelty cases

Intentional abuse or killing of pets will be met with harsher punishments if a state Senate bill becomes law.

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Intentional abuse or killing of pets will be met with harsher punishments if a state Senate bill becomes law.

PHOENIX – State senators agreed Monday to boost the penalty for intentional abuse or killing of pets over objections from a lawmaker who said it could make criminals out of ranchers protecting their herds.

Current law already makes animal cruelty a Class 6 felony. That is punishable by a year in prison.

But judges can designate these cases a misdemeanor. That allows someone to be placed on unsupervised probation, with no requirement for any sort of counseling or treatment.

SB 1295, approved on a 16-13 margin, creates a Class 5 felony for “cruel mistreatment’’ of a domestic animal, meaning any animal raised as a pet. The same penalty – and the presumptive prison sentence of 18 months – also would apply if someone kills a pet without legal privilege or consent of the animal’s owner or handler.

The legislation is the outgrowth of concerns by lawmakers that, for many people, abusing animals is just a start.

“There is an extremely high correlation between folks that abuse animals and those that abuse children and also get involved in domestic violence,’’ said Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson.

Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, said lawmakers should be “very cautious’’ in increasing penalties for any crime.

“This is one of those circumstances where the evidence is so clear that people that abuse animals go on to committing other heinous crimes and domestic violence,’’ she said.

And Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, the sponsor of SB 1295, told colleagues that the aim is not additional punishment but to allow judges to ensure that people get treated before the crimes against animals turn to crimes against people.

“These people are extremely sick people,’’ he said, citing news reports that the teen who is accused of killing 17 at a Florida high school had abused animals.

“These are people with severe mental disturbances that do this,’’ Kavanagh said. “These are people that need treatment.’’

Kavanagh also said the measure is written in a way to ensure ranchers are not subject to criminal penalties for how they treat their own animals.

But Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, who runs a family-owned dairy farm, said that does not go far enough.

“The situation still affects us when the neighbor’s pet dog comes and kills and maims our animals,’’ she said. “And we have every right, within the law right now, to dispense with that animal.’’

Kerr cited an incident where a Marana rancher ended up being arrested for killing a dog.

Kavanagh said that was the rancher’s own fault. He said the rancher never mentioned to police at the time that he was protecting his livestock.

“Had he, he probably would not have been arrested because it’s perfectly legal to use force to protect your livestock,’’ Kavanagh said. It was only at trial that the rancher first mentioned it.

“When he did raise that defense, he was found not guilty,’’ Kavanagh said.