Last of three parts
Oct. 30, 2003 – Attitudes and opinions on the fate of animals in the Virgin Islands run the gamut from deep concern to apathy, a wonder that anyone could care.
Educational outreach alone has not been able to curb the instances of animal abuse in the territory. While sincere, it is woefully inadequate. And the islands' animal shelters, struggling to provide that kind of outreach as well as to care for abused and unwanted creatures, are desperately underfunded.
Laws, however, are something people understand, even if they don't necessarily agree with them. The stronger the law, the better people understand it, some law-enforcement officers and animal advocates say.
The Virgin Islands' animal protection laws are inadequate, these people agree. And many say that is unacceptable. "We need a very strong law once and for all," Police Sgt. Thomas Hannah says. "We need to make it a felony." Hannah is the Police Department spokesman.
There is an animal rights bill currently before the Senate, and if it becomes law, the Virgin Islands will join 38 states which have made animal abuse a felony.
The measure in earlier incarnations has been treated shoddily by the Legislature for years, kicked around from one committee and left to languish. However, its sponsor, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, is planning to try again now.
In its most recent appearance, the animal anti-cruelty bill died a quick, if far from painless, death in the Senate Rules Committee in August 2001. It was killed by a 2-2 vote on a motion from then-Sen. Adelbert Bryan to table the measure. The causes of death: cock fighting and politics. Then-Sen. Norma-Pickard Samuel said she wouldn't support the bill unless it banned cock fighting, which prompted the vote which tabled the bill. (See "Pickard-Samuel, Bryan kill animal-rights bill".)
Two degrees of animal cruelty
The bill in its current version makes animal cruelty in the first degree a felony punishable by imprisonment of up to five years and a fine of not less than $1,000. Second-degree cruelty would be a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment not to exceed one year and a fine of $500.
First-degree offenses include killing or torturing an animal or causing a minor to do so, the cropping of an animal's ears or tail unless by a veterinarian, vehicular hit and run, and the training of animals to fight — except for adult male fighting cocks. Second-degree offenses include intentional neglect.
The bill provides that any person may enter private property without the owner's permission in order to tend to an animal that is without food or water for more than 12 hours.
The measure also establishes an Animal Abuse Fund of $100,000, to be funded annually through animal-abuse fines, gifts and grants and administered by the Finance commissioner. The money would go to reimburse animal shelters and veterinarians for unpaid expenses. The territory's not-for-profit animal shelters do not have the resources to pick up and impound all of the reported stray animals, their officials have repeatedly stated. For years, the agencies have not received government funding for contracted services in a timely manner, if at all.
Donastorg's bill has had strong public support. Animal rights advocates gathered more than 3,000 signatures in its support and testified at hearings on St. Thomas and St. Croix when it was first introduced in 2000.
Current law, which dates from 1966, provides penalties for first-degree animal cruelty of up to 180 days in prison and a fine of up to $500. Before 1996, the fine was capped at $100. At present, poisoning is punishable by a $500 fine, a year in prison or both.
The Web site of the Rutgers University School of Law, one of the few schools with an animal rights program, notes that Ohio recently joined the ranks of states making animal abuse a felony.
Passed by both houses of the Ohio Legislature last fall and signed into law by Gov. Bob Taft on Jan. 8, the new law took effect in early April. Ohio now joins 37 other states in which cruelty to animals is a felony.
The Ohio law makes acts of cruelty such as torture, beating or mutilation of companion animals felonies on a second offense. It gives judges discretion to order psychological testing and counseling for people convicted of animal cruelty. Defendants can be ordered to reimburse agencies for the cost of caring for animals during lengthy court cases.
California likely has the most financially rigorous law. According to the Rutgers Web site, it provides that every person who maliciously and intentionally maims, mutilates, tortures or wounds a living animal, or maliciously and intentionally kills an animal, is guilty of an offense punishable by imprisonment for up to a year or by a fine of up to $20,000, or by both.
Enforcement vs. stiffer laws
Although Hannah and other police officers have strongly endorsed increasing the penalties for animal abuse, the territory's chief law-enforcement official disagrees.
Attorney General Iver Stridiron sparked a hail of telephone calls to WVWI Radio a few weeks ago when he called in on the subject of an endangered turtle that had been attacked and blinded by dogs on a St. Croix beach.
Stridiron said he wanted to offer a little "tongue in cheek" musing that one of the dogs captured following the attack should have legal representation. He also said, seriously, that he considered the territory's laws sufficient to protect animals and didn't think they needed to be strengthened.
On Thursday, Stridiron elaborated on the subject.
"I really don't think increasing the penalties will result in a reduction in the blood sport of dog fighting," he said. "I think it's a matter of enforcement. People who fight dogs are not deterred by laws. It's the blood sport that drives them. They don't consider that they could spend five years in jail. If you look at those states that provide stiff penalties, you will find underground dog fight rings; they become more mobile."
Asked how stiffer laws would affect the people fighting the dogs, he said: "not a whit."
Stridiron described the means such people use to train their dogs — running them on treadmills, feeding them live animals such as chickens. He also said dog-fighting is big business, with the dogs selling for thousands of dollars.
He said he agrees that animal abuse of other types "is horrendous" in the territory, "but I don't think stiff fines, maybe causing someone to mortgage their home, are effective. If you deprive someone of their liberty for 30 days, that's a shock."
According to a local police officer, there have been 16 arrests for animal cruelty so far this year in the St. Thomas-St. John district, while there was a total of six in 2002 and of eight in 2001. Stridiron said that was news to him. Roy L. Schneider Hospital recorded 41 cases of dog bites this year through September, but had no information on the aftermath of the injuries.
Stridiron said that while he was a senator, he did away with the "one bite" law, which held that a dog owner would not be held liable for the dog's first reported bite, unless the owner was found to have caused the bite through negligent, reckless or intentional conduct. Stridiron said that as a lawyer in practice he had had a particularly grisly case where his client was bitten on the face while leaning over to pet a neighbor's dog.
He said that, as far as he knows, there have been no prosecutions for animal cruelty in the territory during the five years that he has been attorney general. "My department has not taken any fresh action," he said. "Nothing has been brought to my attention."
Acknowledging that animal cruelty exists in the Virgin Islands, Stridiron didn't offer any means to enforce the exi
sting laws, as he recommends. He said police in a squad car "properly equipped" could make an arrest if they came upon case of animal abuse.
Hannah begs to differ, and he has especially strong feelings about dog fighting. "We need a strong bill to indicate to citizens that dog fighting isn't permitted," he said. "We've attributed shooting incidents to dog fights. They bet thousands of dollars on these animals."
"If a K-9 dog is intentionally hurt, that is a felony," he noted, adding, "It should be the same for other dogs."
The territory's current animal abuse legislation does not address dog fighting, he said. "We don't have a law per se against it. Any animal fighting falls under the gambling statute." However, he said there is a federal regulation that makes dog fighting a criminal act.
Dog fighting under investigation
An investigation into dog fighting on St. Croix has been under way since an incident last month where several dogs and what appeared to be dog-fighting gear were found. "After the cleanup took place at the JFK housing community," Hannah said, "when the officers went into the bush, the found close to 150 pit bulls and rottweilers. The dogs were taken to the animal shelter."
Paul Chakroff, executive director of the Animal Welfare Center of St. Croix, said he was there with the police officers, and "people were walking the dogs off the property. We collected about 18 of them and took them to the shelter. The owners paid a $10 fine for failure to license."
He continued: "We are concerned where many of those dogs went. The police sent in bulldozers to clear the site. Although there was indication of fighting, there was nothing we could actually peg it on."
Hannah said he knows of no prosecution of animal abuse charges on St. Croix. "Without even looking it up, I would bet there has been one prosecution for abuse on the island, if any," he said. He also made this point: "If we put these [stiffer] laws into effect, we must think about the cost involved in enforcing them." He said an animal control officer needs proper training and should be part of a team.
"If an officer shoots a dog, or the owner, we need support, or here we go again, with a case of an officer being accused of being wrong," he said.
The humans of the Police Department K-9 Corps stand behind statements they made when the animal anti-cruelty bill was before the Senate in 2001. They had written a letter to Sen. Carlton Dowe, who chaired the Rules Committee in the 24th Legislature, saying: "We are in full support of the increasing of penalties and the passing of legislation making animal cruelty a felony. We are well acquainted with the results of the link between animal cruelty and human domestic violence." They added that their unit "deals with it on a daily basis."
K-9 Officer David Rhyme said on Thursday the officers have not changed their minds. "When it comes to our dogs, if someone injures them it's a felony. When we do things to animals, or let them fight and leave them injured, it should be a felony," he said.
Bill's prospects may have improved
Support for Donastorg's current bill is gathering momentum in the 25th Legislature. The chairs of the two committees that must pass it in order for it to reach the Senate floor have voiced support. Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, Government Operations chair, said although he has not seen the bill, he would be "inclined to support it." The Rules Committee chair, Sen. Roosevelt David, said: "I will support it. I have always been a big supporter of the bill."
Sens. Louis Hill and Ronald Russell, freshmen lawmakers, have said they will support the bill, although Russell said he may have "some amendments," which he wouldn't detail. Senate President David Jones said he is "definitely in support of the bill, "and Sen. Douglas Canton Jr. also said he would be behind it. Sens. Carlton Dowe and Celestino A. White Sr., two of the previous bill's sponsors, would not commit this week when asked whether they would support the current bill.
Views on the need for stiffer penalties vary within the community.
Anna Clarke, a past president of the Humane Society of St. Thomas, is adamant about the need to get the bill passed. "The main thing we have to do is eliminate the cock-fighting issue," she said. "Get that out of the bill so it will pass. And I think the penalties should be higher. I don't see why there should be roadblocks to putting a proper law forward. People will have to speak up, and the cops should get involved."
Clarke, who owns a local pub, has a novel way of eliciting support to help stray cats in her neighborhood. "I keep an 'Anti-Kitty Litter' fund on the bar. When I get enough money, I take one of the cats to the shelter to get spayed or neutered," she said. "There's lots of people who help, who do things like that."
Donastorg has said cock-fighting, which is legal in the territory, will not be a part of the current bill. He consulted with Chakroff and with Hubert Brumant, manager of the shelter operated by the Humane Society of St. Thomas. They concurred that cock-fighting should be addressed as a separate issue and should not cloud the present legislation.
Sam Topp, host of WVWI Radio's "Topp Talk" program, said he has reservations about the bill. "The thing I worry about is if people don't embrace it, and the community doesn't feel it, it will become like any other law," he said, "and that discourages me. Every time there's any bill to address a serious area of violation, like the litter issue, we hire enforcement officers and create a whole new level of government. The will to enforce is lacking."
Topp sees no need for separate animal control police officers. "Why don't our own officers enforce the law?" he said.
Topp and his wife, Claire, are almost an animal shelter unto themselves — currently caring for 28 cats and five dogs at their home. And all "are pets, not outside animals," he said.
One outside animal met a grisly death not long ago on St. Croix. Chakroff said a dog hanged from a tree was discovered by people living at Camp Arawak. "It's a case we are still working on," he said. "We do not know, and probably will never know, who did this, or even who the dog belonged to. To the best of our knowledge, this is the result of a dispute between neighbors."
As Chakroff put it: "This was the message sent to one of the parties in the dispute. Tragically, this dog got caught in the middle of the fight."
In this case, too, he said, his agency and the police were called to the scene. "It's so unfortunate where animals are involved," he said.
The photograph accompanying this article was taken at the scene of that tragedy.
Chakroff, who considers educating the community about animal well-being one of his main missions, said he is looking forward to testifying when the animal anti-cruelty bill comes up for a hearing in the 25th Legislature.
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