By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Legislation that would make cruelty to cats and dogs a felony cleared a key hurdle Friday morning.
The House Agriculture Committee passed the legislation without a dissenting vote.
The legislation, which already has passed the Senate in a slightly different form, will now be considered by the Judiciary B Committee in the House.
In past years, efforts to make animal cruelty a felony have stalled in the House Ag Committee.
But last year, after the legislation died in his committee, House Agriculture Chairman Greg Ward, D-Ripley, vowed to work to reach a compromise this session between animal rights advocates and ag-related groups such as the powerful Mississippi Farm Bureau, which worried that the proposal could be used to prosecute rural residents who, for instance, might be forced to take action against animals harming their livestock.
Most states already have laws making abuse of cats and dogs a felony, a fact that animal rights groups in Mississippi have pointed out.
Under the bill passed Friday, a person found guilty a second time of various offenses, such as intentionally torturing, maiming or burning a cat or dog, would be guilty of a felony. The punishment would be up to a $5,000 fine, five years in prison or both.
The first offense would be considered a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $2,500 and up to six months in jail.
“A lot of people who do this are mentally ill,” Ward said. “We want to get them some help.”
Ward said the goal would be to conduct a psychiatric evaluation of a person charged with a first offense.
Lydia Sattler, state director of the Humane Society of the United States, attended the meeting and said she supported the legislation.
In a joint news release, both Sattler and the Farm Bureau praised the legislation.
“We feel this will protect agriculture and rural Mississippians and applaud the committee for diligent work to balance the rights of our members and animal cruelty concerns,” said Randy Knight, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation president.
Sattler said the compromise “will provide meaningful penalties for the worst cases of animal cruelty.”
Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, who started filing bills to make cruelty to cats and dogs a felony in 2006, attended the House Ag meeting Friday and praised the committee’s actions.
“I don’t think they changed the Senate bill that much. If they did anything, they helped the bill,” Dearing said.
Mississippi already has a felony law regarding cruelty of livestock.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.