Aug. 25, 2004 – In a meeting marked by civility and intelligence amid a gallery of anxious animal rights advocates, a bill increasing penalties for animal cruelty passed its first legislative hurdle Wednesday with unanimous approval by the Senate Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee.
That is to say, it passed its first hurdle this time around. The bill was first introduced in 2000 by Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, in what was then the Government Operations, Planning and Environmental Protection Committee. Since then it has suffered numerous fates, including being held in committee for various reasons and once being "misplaced" by the Rules Committee in the 24th Legislature.
However, the cruelest blow by far came in August 2001 at the hands of that same committee, where the bill died on a 2-2 vote. The causes of death: cock fighting and politics.
This time, the bill is moving with unusual rapidity. It will face its nemesis the Rules Committee — on Thursday. However, this is the 25th Legislature Rules Committee. "I feel confident I have the support of my colleagues this time," Donastorg said after Wednesday's committee action.
Before Wednesday's vote, Sen. Roosevelt David, who chairs Rules and is not a member the Public Safety Committee, said he felt confident the bill would be approved. And if so, he added, "I assure you, I will vote for it tomorrow."
The bill defines four crimes: first-degree and second-degree animal abuse, and first-degree and second-degree animal neglect. As taken up by the committee, the first-degree violations were felony crimes. However, the bill was amended to make them, like the second-degree violations, misdemeanors with less-severe punishments.
First-degree abuse, a misdemeanor: The bill calls for up to one year in jail and a fine of $1,000 to $5,000 for anyone who inflicts first-degree abuse on animals. First-degree abuse includes killing, torturing, cutting off ears or tails by anyone other than a licensed veterinarian, poisoning animals, or trapping animals for fighting.
Second-degree abuse, a misdemeanor: People convicted of inflicting second-degree animal abuse would face up to a year in jail and a fine of $500. These offenses include inflicting pain, leading an animal from a vehicle or motor vehicle-driven trailer in a malicious or negligent manner, and transporting animals in a malicious manner.
First-degree neglect, a misdemeanor: The bill makes first-degree animal neglect punishable by imprisonment not exceeding one year and a fine of $1,000. Offenses include failing to provide adequate care for animals, abandoning an animal, disposing of a live animal in a trash bin or garbage disposal site, allowing sick or old animals to suffer, failing to provide aid after hitting an animal with a vehicle, and subjecting an animal to high temperatures while confined in a vehicle.
Second-degree animal neglect, a misdemeanor: Offenders would face a fine of up to $100 and up to 100 hours of community service. Offenses include failing to provide food and water for more than 12 consecutive hours.
Cockfighting Is Excepted
A stumbling block for the bill had been the issue of cockfighting. It was the consensus of all testifying on Wednesday that the issue should be put aside for the time being to allow the bill to pass. "For the greater good of all the animals," Donastorg said.
Cockfighting has been defended on the Senate floor as a cultural practice. No senator has ever proposed banning cockfights exclusively. The death of Donastorg's bill last time around was a tie vote orchestrated by then-Sens. Adelbert Bryan and Norma Pickard-Samuel. Charges of hypocrisy flew in that Rules Committee meeting, with all sides trading barbs. (See "Pickard-Samuel, Bryan Kill Animal-Rights Bill".)
The present bill specifically excludes fighting cocks. The section describing first-degree animal abuse refers to "any person who uses traps to use domestic dogs, cats or any other animal as bait, prey or target … including … training dogs or other animals to fight, excluding adult male fowl used for the sport of cockfighting."
Paul Chakroff, St. Croix Animal Shelter executive director, said he would like to see the last part of that sentence deleted so the bill would not appear to "tacitly" approve cockfighting. Donastorg and Chakroff agree most of the bill, which they have worked on extensively together for more than a year.
However, Donastorg said there is a liability issue to be considered. He said people who participate in legal cockfights have business licenses issued by the Licensing and Consumer Affairs Department. He said the government could be held liable if the Senate banned an activity in which they have thousands of dollars invested and for which they have built facilities. He also said the activity is sanctioned by the Puerto Rico cockfighting associations.
"I think we should make sure the activity is institutionalized, conducted only in the rings, not on street corners," Donastorg said. "My objective is to get the legislation in place to address the crimes against the greater animals, the dogs, cats, horses."
Other concerns were raised Wednesday by Jesse Bethel of the Territorial Public Defender's Office. Although he approves of measures protecting animals, Bethel said, he questions the penalties spelled out in the bill, notably those for what at that point were felonies. Some of them, he said, exceed some penalties for crimes against people. "It does more for animals than for people," he said.
Also, the bill asks for a "speedy trial" for animal abusers. Bethel said Territorial Court has no speedy trial statute, although the federal court does.
Further, he said, the legislation puts an "administrative burden" on the government in calling for professional counseling for offenders. "Every day I see clients in need of psychiatric counseling, but there is no one to counsel," he said. "There is only one psychiatrist at the hospital. There isn't the manpower to do what the bill mandates."
Same Advocacy Arguments
Animal advocates made impassioned pleas, the same pleas they have made for years, hoping this time they would not fall on deaf ears.
Joe Aubain, Humane Society of St. Thomas president, set the tone of the meeting when, after describing the well-established link between animal abuse and human violence, he said: "Senators, we want to put an end to animal abuse and cruelty, and, in doing so, hopefully reduce the incidence of violence towards women and children. We cannot accomplish this without your help."
Aubain noted that 41 states have laws making certain types of animal cruelty a felony offense. "It is my hope that we in the Virgin Islands can soon be added to that list," he said.
Randolph Knight, animal rights activist, major contributor to the planned new Humane Society animal-care center, and an owner of Knight Quality Stations, took up Aubain's theme. "The 25th Legislature has the opportunity to do the right thing," he said. He noted that a prominent part of the proposed new center is educational outreach to children and adults. "We have photos [of animal abuse] that are beyond belief," he said. "It's uncivilized."
Hubert Brumant, longtime Humane Society animal care manager, made his plea. "When I get calls and ask for police back-up, I'm told it's just a misdemeanor," he said. "If it were a felony offense, they would respond quickly." He added, "Some water comes from my eyes when I see these animals come in."
Advocates of cockfighting have contended that "the roosters enjoy it" and that it's more "humane" than the methods the poultry industry uses in killing chickens. Chakroff challenged such views at
the Caribbean Animal Welfare Conference he put together on St. Croix in May.
On Wednesday he presented to the committee some findings from a poll he commissioned that was conducted last December and January. Out of 500 residents queried, he said, 90 percent indicated they are against cockfighting and 10 percent said they favor it. (See "Animal Advocates Gained a Sense of Community".)
And, he said, "the figures are across the board for race and culture." Opposition was expressed by 89 percent of respondents who identified themselves as black, 89 percent of those who said they are Hispanic and 91 percent of those who said they are white. It is popularly thought by some V.I. politicians, although rarely expressed outright, that criminalizing cockfighting could cost them the Hispanic vote. "This poll shows a strong endorsement against the practice" among that group as well as the community overall, Chakroff said.
He said the opportunity now to remove any exemption for cockfighting from the bill "leaves it open for the Senate to take the high road. Leave it to another entity to make the determination." He called the activity "reprehensible" and a "hotbed for criminal activity." He also said there are serious health issues relating to cockfighting: "Public health is at risk in transporting the fowl from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the V.I."
Animal activists from St. John and St. Thomas had their say. Altogether the groups have gathered 6,000 signatures on a petition endorsing the bill since it made its first appearance.
Johanna M. Chawzuik, Animal Care Center of St. John director, expressed the feelings and frustrations of all the advocates when she said: "I see on a daily basis the results of our not having a penalty in place for those who abuse animals. We have had dogs come in with ropes and chains embedded in their flesh. We receive calls every day from concerned residents, and tourists want us to take action on animal abuse and neglect."
She added: "As a civilized society, we should not continue to allow this gruesome and cruel behavior to continue without consequences to deter abusive behavior."
Iris Kern, St. John Safety Zone executive director, underscored the fact that "abuse is abuse," whether directed against animals or humans. She noted Bethel's concern that there may not be enough counselors available and up to the task of working with animal abusers.
She said animal abusers "are the same persons who believe that parents should have license to beat their children. And, she said, "There are certain rights and wrongs that transcend culture, and cruelty is never OK."
Police Commissioner Elton Lewis was not able to attend the meeting but sent a statement. In it, he noted that the bill fails to provide "law enforcement with a means to address hazards created by animal owners who allow their domestic animals to stray."
Donastorg, who is not a member of the Public Safety Committee, said such a provision was supposed to have been in the bill and was erroneously omitted. Through Sen. Emmett Hansen II, who is a member of the committee, he proposed an amendment restoring the language to the bill.
Hansen also successful proposed three amendments changing the language in the bill from "felony" to "misdemeanor" for first-degree abuse and first-degree neglect and modifying the specified punishments to make them less severe.
Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd added a leash law provision, saying he was surprised that it wasn't already in the bill. The amendment says dogs are not permitted on public streets or property unless on a leash no more than 6 feet in length and in the hands of a capable person. Violators would be subject to a fine of $200 to $1.000.
Committee members at the meeting were the chair, Sen. Lorraine Berry, and Sens. Carlton Dowe, Hansen, Liburd and Shawn-Michael Malone. Sens. David Jones and Ronald Russell were excused. Sens. David and Louis Hill also attended the meeting.
The following bills were scheduled to be heard in the afternoon session of the meeting:
– The Anti-trafficking Act of 2004.
– No. 25-0127 – the Virgin Islands National Incident-Based Crime Reporting Act.
– No. 25-0219 – to give peace officers the authority to issue appearance tickets for misdemeanor offenses attempted or committed in their presence.
– No. 25-0213 – to establish the Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands, rename the Territorial Court and establish the Judicial Nominating Commission, and for other purposes.
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