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Iowa is one of only 2 states where animal torture isn't a felony. Preston Moore is working to change that.

State Humane Society director's experience with animal cruelty cases spurred him into advocacy

Parakeets gather in a cage on Feb. 28, 2018, at the Cedar Valley Humane Society in Cedar Rapids. The birds were among more than 800 animals seized from a Vinton home in January 2018. Working on that case led Preston Moore of Cedar Rapids from his job at the Cedar Valley organization to his current position as the Iowa state director for the Humane Society of the United States. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Parakeets gather in a cage on Feb. 28, 2018, at the Cedar Valley Humane Society in Cedar Rapids. The birds were among more than 800 animals seized from a Vinton home in January 2018. Working on that case led Preston Moore of Cedar Rapids from his job at the Cedar Valley organization to his current position as the Iowa state director for the Humane Society of the United States. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Delmar native Preston Moore, 32, grew up with pets in his home, but it was the house next door that led to his career path in animal advocacy, first with the Cedar Valley Humane Society, and since 2018, as Iowa’s state director for the Humane Society of the United States.

“In 2004, my next-door neighbor was arrested and charged with animal neglect after more than a dozen animals were removed from her home,” he said. “I remember very vividly how devastating it was to see the animals — both alive and deceased — removed from the property, all in terrible condition. I knew then that I wanted to help those animals somehow, but I lacked the direction to know how.

“The next year, I went off to college.”

After studying journalism at the University of Iowa, he worked in marketing for NewBo City Market and the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids. Then came what he called “the chance of a lifetime,” to put those skills to use in 2015 as director of development and community outreach for the Cedar Valley Humane Society.

Three years later, his position at that organization would put him in the throes of another neglect case, firing up his resolve to help change Iowa’s animal cruelty laws.

In 2018, he assisted in removing more than 800 animals from a home in Vinton.

“It was after that case that I knew I wanted to work to make our laws better to reflect Iowans’ values,” he said, adding that shortly thereafter, he was offered his current position with the Humane Society. “Now I am privileged to spend every day working alongside Iowans to improve our laws.”

He works out of his home office in Cedar Rapids, but also sets up one-day offices in coffee shops, and during the legislative session, splits his time between traveling and working inside the Capitol in Des Moines.

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He also assists law enforcement with animal cruelty investigations and helps connect animal shelters with support services.

Here is his firsthand view.

Q: What are the most pressing animal issues and needs on which the Humane Society is focusing?

A: Without question, our focus right now is updating Iowa’s animal cruelty laws. We are encouraging our state lawmakers to pass HF737 — a bill that was passed unanimously by the House but not given time on the floor of the Senate.

The bill would make animal torture a felony for the first offense (Iowa and Mississippi are the only two states that treat animal torture as a misdemeanor); increase penalties for repeat offenders; close a loophole preventing prosecution if the abuse is committed by the owner; and clarify a great deal of definitions that will modernize Iowa’s legal code.

The need for these changes is apparent to most Iowans, but a recent case in the Decorah area made it glaringly obvious. A man was arrested for stealing a couple of cellphones and received felony charges. A few weeks later, he was arrested for killing two dogs with an ax, for which he received misdemeanor animal torture charges.

Iowans of all backgrounds believe we should treat animals well and punish those who don’t. Right now, our laws do not match those values.

Q: What are the major animal welfare issues in Iowa?

A: Aside from updating our animal cruelty code ... the most notable is Iowa’s puppy mill problem.

Iowa is home to several hundred puppy mills, including several that have been on the Humane Society of the United States’ “Horrible Hundred” list — our annual report documenting 100 problem puppy mills based on violations in inspection records. Iowans have made their views clear on this issue — we’re not OK with dogs spending their entire lives in cramped cages.

Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, Mike Naig, and his team reached out to the (Humane Society of the United States) earlier this year to get feedback on a proposal his department is working on to help address the worst conditions in puppy mills — including lowering the maximum temperature dogs can be kept in, requiring solid resting areas in cages instead of letting dogs live on wire floors, and increasing the frequency that cages need to be cleaned.

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This proposal is a significant step in the right direction, and while the changes won’t make Iowa a leader on these issues, they will improve the lives of thousands of animals in the state.

Q: How is the Humane Society addressing those needs on the national level?

A: We have staff and volunteers working in nearly every state (and at the federal level) on animal cruelty and puppy mill issues.

The (Humane Society) is pushing the USDA to reinstate full public access to animal welfare inspection reports and other records that show how businesses like roadside zoos, puppy mills and research facilities that do invasive research are treating the animals in their care.

In 2017, the USDA suddenly and without explanation removed animal welfare inspection reports from its website. The blackout left the public and consumers in the dark about important animal welfare information that reveals what really goes on behind the scenes at the thousands of entities regulated by the USDA. The records also give critical insight into how — and if — the agency is properly implementing the Animal Welfare Act.

Another federal priority is the PACT Act, which would create the first federal anti-cruelty law. In 2010, Congress enacted the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act of 2010, which prohibits the trade in obscene video depictions of animals being subjected to egregious cruelty and torture. But the law is limited in scope, and while it bans the trade in video depictions of cruelty, it does not prohibit the underlying cruelty itself.

The PACT Act would strengthen the animal crush video law by allowing federal prosecution of the underlying acts of cruelty. ...

Q: Why have we been hearing and seeing more stories about animal hoarding in the news — is there an uptick in such cases or an uptick in reporting?

A: I think Iowans are frustrated with the meager penalties animal abusers receive in our state. People have embraced the “see something, say something” motto and have become more willing to call authorities and bring attention to the issue.

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I also think law enforcement and prosecutors are more knowledgeable about the link between animal and human violence and are more willing to take on hard cases and ask lawmakers for stronger laws so they can protect their communities.

Whether it’s an actual uptick in cases, or simply an increase in reporting, the solution is the same — we need mental health help for these offenders. If our lawmakers pass HF737, the courts will be able to order mental health evaluations and treatments for those convicted of animal mistreatment. ...

Q: What happens when you get a cruelty report?

A: Each time I receive a call about suspected animal cruelty — and that unfortunately happens often — I encourage the person to contact their local authorities. Without the help of local police and sheriff departments, these crimes would simply go unpunished.

We work closely with law enforcement throughout the country, including right here in Iowa, to assist with animal cruelty investigations. The (national Humane Society) Law Enforcement Training Center provides free trainings for law enforcement agencies nationwide, training about 4,000 officers a year, to help them effectively identify and investigate animal cruelty and fighting cases. We’re hoping to bring more of those trainings to Iowa yet this year and in 2020.

Q: What happens to the animals?

A: If animals are deemed to be “threatened” per Iowa code, they are usually seized and held by law enforcement or a partnering agency — usually a shelter — until a disposition hearing is held to determine if the animals have been neglected according to the law. If this is the case, the animals can sometimes be held for months, or even years, pending the finalization of the court case and any appeals.

If they are deemed to have been neglected, a judge can order that they be granted permanent custody to the agency that seized them, and they are usually placed up for adoption (like was seen in the Vinton case).

Sometimes the owners voluntarily surrender the animals to law enforcement, and the animals are then able to receive medical treatment and be placed for adoption.

Q: What penalties do Iowans face for animal abuse or neglect?

A: The penalties Iowans face for animal crimes depend on what they are charged with.

Under current code:

• Animal abuse is an aggravated misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine of $625 to $6,250.

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• Animal torture is an aggravated misdemeanor for the first offense. Only if someone is charged with animal torture a second time is it a felony offense (a Class “D” felony, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of $750 to $7,500).

• Animal neglect is a serious misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of between $315 and $1,875.

Q: How do Iowa’s animal laws differ from those in other states?

A: When it comes to companion animal protection, Iowa’s laws are in the lower tier.

Iowa and Mississippi are the only two states that do not prosecute animal torture as an automatic felony. Some people say that it’s because we’re an agricultural state, but Iowa is the only state in the Top 10 agriculture producing states that doesn’t prosecute animal torture as a felony in the first offense. Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin — all states with significant and robust agriculture industries — implemented the types of changes we’re talking about years ago with no adverse effects on farmers.

Q: How can the public help at local, state and national levels?

A: People have to speak up to their lawmakers, and they can’t do it just once a year. Lawmakers want to hear from their constituents, and especially on the local level that rarely happens.

Get to know your city council, your state representative and your state senator. These people represent you and your interests. Make sure they know that you believe animal welfare laws are important.

If people are interested in getting involved beyond that, I would encourage them to contact me at iowa@hsus.org. I would be happy to help them find a volunteer position working on these issues.

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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