The Animal Legal Defense Fund just released its state rankings for animal welfare laws, and Iowa is 49th, only ahead of Mississippi. This embarrassing ranking reflects the failure of our current law to properly define and punish animal cruelty. This is a gravely serious problem because it has been proven that unchecked violence toward animals leads to escalating violence against other people. Fortunately there’s an easy solution: HF737, which passed out of the Iowa House last year 96-0. Now the Senate needs to do its job, and pass HF 737 without amendment.
Just how bad are Iowa’s animal welfare laws? Recent stories speak for themselves and they are happening across the state: Trap a Chihuahua in its crate, and toss it into a dumpster to starve in Central Iowa? Simple misdemeanor, five days in jail. Severely beat a dog and cut its throat in Eastern Iowa? Aggravated misdemeanor, ten days in jail. Hang the family dog to death in the garage for barking too much in Central Iowa? Two years’ probation, no jail time.
How could the law let this happen? You’ll find the answer buried in the fine print. Iowa’s companion animal cruelty law, Chapter 717B, includes three levels of cruelty charges depending on the nature and extent of the conduct: neglect, abuse, and torture. Unfortunately, all three charges suffer from bad definitions and weak punishments.
The legal definition of “abuse” requires that the victim animal belong to someone else. We call it the “owner exception” and it means, under Iowa law, an owner can’t technically “abuse” their own animal. Next, the definition of “torture” requires the prosecutor to prove that the defendant had a “depraved or sadistic intent.” If you’re confused by that requirement, you’re not alone: even the Iowa Court of Appeals couldn’t decide what it means, and reversed a torture conviction in Eastern Iowa where the defendant had beaten a Boston terrier puppy to death with a baseball bat.
These defects in our cruelty laws force prosecutors to charge most cases as mere neglect, a misdemeanor offense. Even then, the definition of “neglect” is poor. To beat a neglect charge, a defendant only need prove they provided a “sufficient quantity” of food and water, and “adequate shelter.” The law does not require proper quality food, or that the water be potable. Nor does the law require even basic veterinary care. That issue prevented bringing charges in a recent case from Northern Iowa where the ARL rescued 13 dogs suffering from fleas, skin/ear infections, and severely overgrown nails that made it too painful to walk. These dogs won’t get justice thanks to our bad laws.
Even where prosecutors clear these hurdles and land a conviction, the punishment is typically a slap on the wrist. Consider one recent case: a grown man, angry at the family dog for chewing his sunglasses, held it down and repeatedly beat it with a belt and his closed fist. He even forced his child to record the incident as a warning to the other children. He received seven days in jail and a year of probation.
That case illustrates the grotesque and direct connection between violence against our companion animals and violence against other humans. The statistics are shocking.
Animal abusers are five times more likely to cause harm to other humans;
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Eighty-five percent of women and 63 percent of children entering domestic violence shelters also report animal abuse. More than 80 percent of families being treated for child abuse were also involved in animal abuse. Seventy Percent of all animal abusers have committed at least one other criminal offense and almost 40 percent have committed violent crimes against people;
Fortunately, there’s a solution ready to go in HF737. The bill would remove the “owner exception” for abuse, remove the “depraved or sadistic intent” requirement for torture and improve the definition of neglect to require nutritionally sufficient food, access to potable water, sanitary living conditions free of waste, suitable shelter based on the animal’s specific needs, and veterinary care to relieve suffering.
The bill also would enhance the penalties for these offenses, making animal torture causing death a first-offense felony and requiring defendants to undergo mental health evaluation and treatment in almost all cases to reduce the chance of future violence against humans.
Our neighbors in Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin all have laws similar to HF 737. This is not a partisan issue; last year this bill passed unanimously (96-0) out of the Iowa House. Despite all of this, the future of HF 737 remains in doubt. Some Iowa senators complain that this bill would harm the interests of livestock producers. This is nonsense. HF 737 makes zero changes to our livestock laws. This bill is for companion animals only.
If you care about protecting Iowa’s companion animals, preventing future violence against other people, and feel embarrassed that our laws rank so poorly, join me in telling the Iowa Senate to pass HF 737 without amendments.
Colin Grace is an Iowa native, attorney, and the Director of legal and strategic Initiatives for the Animal Rescue League of Iowa. firstname.lastname@example.org