Animal Cruelty Laws – Too Long of a Leash? - WKRN News 2

Animal Cruelty Laws – Too Long of a Leash?

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In some cases, the most vulnerable segments of our population suffer abuse. In some cases, the most vulnerable segments of our population suffer abuse.
TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL) - For many, animals are not just an addition to a home, but a member of the family. But, what happens when their treatment is cast into the shadows?

In some cases, the most vulnerable segments of our population suffer abuse. We return to animal cruelty cases that have made headlines in the Tri-Cities and examine what penalties offenders are facing.

These unthinkable acts against animals are said to be the gateway to even more serious crimes – with punishments equating to little more than a slap on the wrist.

Sandy Behnke has worked at the Hawkins County Animal Shelter for nearly three years - time that's been hardened, by horrors.

"[I’ve] seen many abuse cases. The fines are minimum. We haven't seen anybody really prosecuted - for any animal cruelty," Behnke said. "There were 68 animals taken from this residence [in Mooresburg]. These animals were in cages in the basement in feces. The cages weren't even sitting straight. It was awful. “

The Mooresburg homes belong to Ann Shirley Barber and Michele Ann Barber - a mother and daughter who each faced 68 counts of animal cruelty, back in April.

"[There were] dead horses in the barn, the smell of death all throughout the place. It was - I couldn't think of anything worse than what I seen at that place," Behnke said.

So, what ever happened? The Barbers each plead guilty to 4 of the 68 counts of animal cruelty, paid their $200 fines plus court costs and are now serving two years probation.

"They did no jail time. Nothing," Behnke said, who aided in the rescue efforts.

Up the road in Hawkins County, Mollie Bird, owner of Treadway Equine Animal Rescue Sanctuary (TEARS), knows the frustration all too well.

"I think it's bogus. I think they should have stiffer penalties. To me, it's just like getting a child and neglecting a child, not feeding a child," Bird said, "These are my kids."

Many of her "kids" came to her at once last year.

"Last year was crazy. That's why we're so full. We have 44 horses. We got 23 in a month last year. This was a big part of them," Bird said.

This case is seared into her memory.

"You could feel every rib, stick your hand in her hips."

In a matter of three days in April, TEARS rescued 13 starving and neglected horses, the ones that were still alive, from Timothy Lee's property.

When it came time for him to pay the price, it's best to first put it in perspective:

A fine for not wearing your seatbelt in Tennessee is $10. Littering is a $50 fine, plus court costs. The fine for Lee, charged with 6 counts of animal cruelty, was $2 per abused horse. $12 for the six counts of animal neglect, plus court costs.

Lee is currently serving probation, after receiving the maximum penalty for animal cruelty misdemeanors.

The fine, however, could have been up to $2,500. So we wondered - how did he end up paying $2 per horse? The answer isn't clear.

The judge in the case directed me to the District Attorney's Office. D.A. Berkeley Bell says anything they do, the court has to agree to.

"If we agreed to this, it would have been reflected in our notes," Bell told News Channel 11 over the phone.

Because of this, Bell believes the fine was imposed by the court.

It’s cases like these, that make Behnke question the system.

"The sheriff's department works with us wonderfully - it's just when they get into the court system. That's where it fails us," Behnke said.

In Washington County, I sat down with District Attorney Tony Clark, who says the system is far from perfect.

"It is something that I think should be looked at more seriously," Clark said. "The biggest loophole I see - and I’ll take the case, the example a year or so ago when we had Honey, the dog that was thrown down the stairs and put in the dryer and some of those things - he ends up with probation."

Probation, and come July - at the hands of the case judge - judicial diversion, meaning the charge will be wiped clean from his record.

"We asked for some jail time. I think there ought to be jail time," Clark said. "If we maybe had some mandatory sentencing, maybe some jail time or something, or some time of counseling that was mandatory, it would help us. But right now, it's treated like any other - like I said, it's treated like property."

But this property, has a pulse.

"There's really no laws here," Behnke said.

State laws have actually come a long way from where they started.

"In the last 5-6 years, I think our laws have drastically improved. When I started 20 years ago, we maybe had 1 or 2 statutes dealing with animal cruelty. It was very hard to prove, the elements were very hard to prove, and it was only a Class B or Class A misdemeanor. We now have probably 30 or more statutes dealing with animal cruelty: livestock, dogs, cats, different types of cruelty to animals, abuse neglect, and some of those are now felony cases that we have. So I think the law was moved in a good direction," Clark said.

The biggest game changer came when charges involving animals were no longer all misdemeanors.

"Tennessee, fortunately, does have a statute that criminalizes aggravated cruelty to animals as a felony," Assistant District Attorney (2nd District) Julie Canter said.

But Leighann Lassiter, who serves as the Tennessee State Director for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) says having the law in place, isn't enough.

"Some of our cruelty laws in Tennessee are very good and very strong. But you have to look at the enforcement," Lassiter said. "We have about 40 counties out of 95 that don't have any, any government funded animal services in their community."

Lassiter explained that the State of Virginia, for example, mandates that every county must provide animal services to its community.

Lassiter's main focus right now is working on a bill, sponsored by Representative Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), to hold those accountable who fuel an underground world of exploitation: cockfighting and dog fighting.

"The current penalties are $50 to be a spectator at a cockfight, and $500 to be a spectator at a dog fight. And those penalties are so low, that we've actually made Tennessee a magnet for criminals from other states," Lassiter said.

Other, surrounding states - watching can be a felony.

Canter says a missing link is a statewide tracking system.

"I would like to see an animal abuse registry come into place. Even if it is just for law enforcement, it would be helpful in terms of assessing other crimes," Canter said.

She's not alone. The National Sheriff's Association has actually submitted a proposal to the FBI, to begin tracking crimes against animals.

"Often times, it's a gateway behavior for violence against humans," Canter said.

"A lot of people with histories of very serious crimes - murder or serial killers - started out with abuse of animals," Clark said.

Behnke says where the system falls out, people step in.

"There are a lot of concerned citizens here. And I think if it wasn't for them, we wouldn't see it," Behnke said. "The community came together, but the court system didn't."

"I know people may look at animal cruelty and say well, there's - we have drug problems, we have juvenile crime, we have of course domestic problems and DUI's but, you know, this is serious. The legislators thought enough of this to make several new laws making these felony charges. So, I think they ought to put a little more teeth into them, as to what we can do once they're convicted," Clark said.

A little more teeth, to back up the bark with a stronger bite.

PREVIOUS ANIMAL CRUELTY STORIES: 

Bluff City woman faces 28 counts of animal cruelty


Hawkins County women facing 68 counts of animal cruelty

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