CARSON CITY -- Gina Griesen, president of Nevada Voters for Animals, has fought for years to stop animal abuse in Las Vegas.
So it's no surprise that she wants state legislators to approve a bill that would make it a felony to kill, torture or maliciously injure an animal.
But she has an even better reason to support Senate Bill 223: There is a link between animal abuse and domestic violence. Many violent criminals, especially serial killers, started as children who abused animals.
Stop animal cruelty, and you might stop some people abuse as well, she and others believe.
"Animal cruelty is really treated as a minor issue today, the same as jaywalking," Griesen said. "A guy can come up and shoot your horse in front of you and still it is a misdemeanor."
The bill, which would make the first offense a felony, punishable by a one- to four-year term in prison if the animal lives, and a one- to five-year term if the animal dies, faces an uncertain future.
Farmers and ranchers oppose the bill, contending some of their practices might appear cruel to outsiders, but really are not. And with passage, as many as five more animal abusers a year are expected to end up in prison -- a $100,000 plus cost that recession-plagued Nevada can ill afford.
Forty-four states already have laws that make malicious and willful animal cruelty a felony crime, usually punishable by time in state prison. Under SB223, introduced on Griesen's behalf by Sen. Shirley Breeden, D-Henderson, Nevada would become the 45th.
HUMAN-ANIMAL ABUSE LINK
Numerous studies and papers have been written in recent years showing a link between animal abuse and domestic violence.
There is even a New Jersey organization, the National Link Coalition, whose mission is making more people and legislators aware of the animal abuse-domestic violence link in hope they take action to make animals and people safer.
The FBI did its own study that found numerous serial killers, including Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, tortured small animals when they were children.
In Southern Nevada, the operators of the Shade Tree Shelter in North Las Vegas noticed a dramatic difference in the behavior of abused women after the nonprofit organization opened its Noah's Animal House in 2007.
Abused women and children can take their pets with them and place them in Noah's when they seek protection in the shelter. The animal house is on the shelter grounds. Before the animal house opened, the average woman would return to the home of the abusing partner nine times and potentially expose herself to more violence.
"Now women who come here fleeing domestic violence return to the home of the abuser only 1 percent of the time," which is a lot less often, said Marlene Richter, the Shade Tree executive director.
"Here they are able to care about life through their pets. They usually believe the (awful) things that have been said about them by their abusers, but not what has been said about their pets. They cling to hope because of their pets."
Richter said the pet often becomes the pawn in homes filled with domestic violence. The abuser will threaten to kill and often does kill pets if the women and children leave. Women in the shelter have even been emailed pictures of their mutilated family pets, she said.
She knows of cases where the abuser put a dog in a freezer when the woman left. In other cases pets have been tortured in front of children.
In 60 percent of the cases of violence against women in the shelter, Richter estimates there also has been animal cruelty in their homes.
"If we rescue the lives of pets, we also rescue the lives of abused women and children," said Richter, who intends to testify for SB223.
the PROs AND CONs of criminalization
Breeden expects opposition from hunting and ranching groups as well as rural legislators. But she said the bill "is not to disallow hunting (with dogs). But if an individual goes out and mutilates a hunting dog, well that should be an issue."
Doug Busselman, the lobbyist for the Nevada Farm Bureau, is concerned that the bill would apply to livestock. He said overzealous regulators might misinterpret "certain management acts" as cruelty when they are accepted forms of animal husbandry.
As an example, he pointed out that the castration and dehorning of animals often is done without anesthetics. Animals also are branded with hot irons.
"Why do we need to make everything a felony?" Busselman asked. "Passing more laws doesn't make anything safer."
Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, called SB223 "the worst bill introduced so far this session," noting that animal cruelty already is against the law and questioning why a harsher penalty is necessary.
He said decisions about livestock mistreatment are decided by veterinarians, the brand inspector and county sheriffs.
But Natural Resources Chairman Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, said he is a "big animal person" who doesn't want any animal, livestock or pet, abused. He said sometimes legislators "need to put the (hammer) head down" because judges won't impose the penalties permitted by existing laws.
Animal cruelty is a misdemeanor in Nevada, usually punishable with a fine, but judges can order as much as six months in jail.
No inmates are in state prisons today for animal cruelty. A person must be convicted twice of animal cruelty before the crime becomes a felony with the third offense.
Griesen said the abuse link is too valid to ignore.
"Why do we wait to punish these animal abusers until after they harm a person? If they pass this law, maybe a father won't beat his child or his wife to death? Animals are the first to be abused in domestic violence situations."
While three of the five members of the Natural Resources Committee are co-sponsors of SB223, Griesen fears the bill will be put in legislators' drawers if testimony shows enforcement would increase state costs.
That will occur, according to the fiscal note for the bill developed by the Department of Corrections. It estimates that between three and five people a year could be imprisoned for extreme animal cruelty under such a law. It costs more than $20,000 a year to keep one inmate in prison.
remember COONEY THE DOG
Then there is the infamous case of Cooney, a 3-year-old female pitbull-beagle mix that was brought to the Reno headquarters of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in October.
Cooney's owner said he suspected a mouse somehow crawled into the dog's bulging stomach, so he cut a 6- to 8-inch hole in the dog's abdomen with a box cutter.
The dog later died.
Washoe County Animal Control officer Kathleen Denning spent 1½ months tracking the man down. He was a transient living in a van in Reno.
The man could not post the $640 bail so he spent about 40 days in jail for misdemeanor animal cruelty and then was released for time served in February. While some people may conclude he was mentally ill, Denning said he was judged competent to stand trial.
Griesen said that under the current law, he legally can acquire another animal.
She wants to name SB223 "Cooney's Law" if it's enacted into law.
The bill will have its first hearing, before the Senate Natural Resources Committee at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.
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