Does Iowa Senate’s animal abuse bill go far enough?

By: - March 6, 2020 1:05 pm

The Animal Rescue League of Iowa rescued 26 cats and kittens that were hoarded in a one-bedroom apartment in Des Moines in April 2019. (Photo by: Animal Rescue League of Iowa)

Activists fought for even tougher legislation against animal cruelty than the Iowa Senate passed this week, but they’re still celebrating the chamber’s approval of stricter penalties.

The Animal Rescue League of Iowa, a Des Moines-based non-profit organization, has worked for years to pass more severe charges against people who abuse “companion animals” like dogs and cats. 

Current Iowa law is unclear, they argue, which raises obstacles for actually punishing people who hurt or neglect animals.

“We’re ecstatic,” said Colin Grace, ARL director of legal and strategic initiatives, about the bill’s passage. “This is a huge, huge step forward for the state of Iowa.”

Under current code, suspects accused of committing animal cruelty can face three different charges: animal abuse, neglect or torture.

A loophole allows owners to intentionally injure their own animals without being charged with animal abuse and instead face a lesser charge of animal neglect, Grace said.

Additionally, people who commit torture, prolonged pain to an animal, need to act with a “depraved or sadistic intent.”

This intent is difficult for the Iowa judges to interpret, Grace said. 

In 2012, an Iowa man was charged with animal torture after he beat a 7-month-old puppy to death by hitting it in the head with a baseball bat. The case went to the Iowa Court of Appeals which overturned the ruling, saying the state failed to prove a “sadistic” or “depraved” intent.

Iowa’s law also doesn’t include veterinary care under its neglect charge. When a man failed to bring his dog to a veterinarian after breaking its legs, he was charged with animal neglect, Grace said. That was overturned because code defines neglect as absence of adequate food, water and shelter.

The bill that passed through the Iowa Senate addresses all of these concerns, Grace said.

But animal rights groups and national organizations wanted Iowa to create a first-offense felony charge for animal torture. The original bill that passed through the Iowa House in 2019 classified torture as a Class-D felony, but senators added an amendment proposed by Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, to reduce the charge to an aggravated misdemeanor.

Zaun said he wanted the bill to pass through the Iowa Legislature, which required the change.

While it’s not what the Animal Rescue League wanted, Grace said people convicted of animal torture also face additional parole with the Iowa Department of Corrections after completing their sentence.

“We were hoping to get the first-offense felony, but in the circumstances where it’s either everything … versus not having the entire bill, I think unfortunately, it’s sort of an easy choice to make,” Grace said. “You have to get what you can get in that aspect.”

Historically, lawmakers feared the impact an animal abuse bill could have on the state’s livestock and agricultural industry. Grace said this bill doesn’t touch on farms.

He believes the bill will pass through the Iowa House.

“This particular bill started last year in last year’s session,” Grace said. “The fight has been going on for years and years and years.”

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