Iowans who abuse animals face stricter penalties under Senate bill

By: - March 4, 2020 7:50 pm

Toby the dog was allegedly abused by a Des Moines woman, according to the Animal Rescue League of Iowa. Legislation approved by the Iowa Senate would increase penalties for animal abuse. (Photo courtesy of Animal Rescue League of Iowa.)

Iowa senators passed a bill imposing stronger penalties against people who commit violence or neglect against animals — a measure animal rights advocates have been pushing for years as Iowa continuously ranks in the bottom nationally for animal protections.

Under current Iowa law, the strictest penalty first-time offenders who abuse or neglect animals face are aggravated misdemeanors, which can carry up to two years in prison. Activists have condemned the penalty, saying it’s not harsh enough. 

They also criticized the current code, saying its muddied language creates barriers in charging and sentencing offenders.

“What we’re trying to solve here is Iowa being one of the lowest-ranked states in regards to animal abuse,” Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said.

Over the years, Republican legislators raised concerns about the hardships an animal protection bill could pose for farmers and their livestock. 

But Zaun emphasized the bill only impacts “companion animals,” like dogs and cats.

“We can’t fix bad people, but I think we can go a long ways towards dealing with these issues and keeping the animal agriculture business out of it,” said Sen. Tom Shipley, R-Nodaway, who supported the bill.

Passage didn’t come without softening some language, however. In the version approved by the House in  2019, people who were charged with animal torture faced a Class-D felony, which carries up to five years in prison and a fine between $750 to $7,500.

Zaun said he removed that portion to help get more people on board with the bill. Instead, people who commit animal torture will be charged with an aggravated misdemeanor, but they will face special sentencing rules and be under supervision by the Iowa Department of Corrections.

Iowa ranks second-to-last in the nation for animal rights protection laws, according to Animal Legal Defense Fund, a national animal-activist group. 

The state is at the bottom because of a lack of felony charges for first-time offenders, inadequate definitions of basic care and no reporting method for veterinarians if they suspect animal abuse. 

The report also condemns the passage of an ag-gag law in Iowa last year, which a federal judge struck down as unenforceable. 

Over recent years, the Animal Rescue League of Iowa has highlighted cases of animal neglect and the low penalties criminals faced.

One case highlighted by the ARL involved a Des Moines woman who beat her dog in front of animal control officers who arrested her. She was charged and promptly released.

The next day, she bought a dog on Craigslist, resulting in outrage by Iowans on social media.

The Iowa House will consider the bill with the amendment during a floor debate.

What the bill does:

  • A person who intentionally abuses and injures an animal will be charged with a simple misdemeanor which is punishable up to 30 days in jails and a fine between $65 to $650.
  • A person who intentionally inflicts serious injury or causes the death of an animal will be charged with an aggravated misdemeanor and face up to two years in prison and a fine between $625 to $6,250. The person is subject to a Class D felony and can be sentenced up to five years in prison and a fine between $750 to $7,500.
  • A person who intentionally inflicts severe prolonged pain or suffering to an animal will be charged with animal torture if it results in serious injury or death. The charge is an aggravated misdemeanor, but special sentencing rules will require the person to also undergo additional confinement like parole.


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