MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - People convicted of animal abuse or neglect are seen sentenced to little more than a slap on the wrist. This has outraged many for years.
Many animal advocates said if the state of Alabama had a report card, it would get F's for protecting our animals and punishing those who abuse them. In fact, Alabama has been ranked as one of the worst states for animal welfare .
LOCAL ANIMAL ABUSE CASES
In December 2011, we saw Rodney Loper in court in Citronelle . Police said he left his two dogs, Bo and Luke, without food or water for several weeks. One of the dogs still had his owner's name printed on his collar.
Natalie Reeves had to hold back tears as she described the condition they were found in.
"I couldn't believe they were alive. I mean, I just couldn't believe they were alive," said Reeves.
We recently met Little Momma at Safe Haven Animal Care Kennel .
Robbie Fitzgerald said when she was brought in, she weighed 20 pounds and could barely support herself to walk. She was found tied up with a computer cord, her ears cut back with scissors and her teeth ground down.
"I sat in the middle of the shelter floor and just cried with her," Fitzgerald said.
Then, there was Bella . Before being rescued in Washington County, her life was confined to a five-foot radius.
"I just don't understand how people could do this," Fitzgerald said of Bella.
These animals are just few of the victims of animal cruelty. Those accused of the crimes are often charged with just a misdemeanor, if they're charged at all.
"You can drive down any given street in Mobile and you are going to find something that's not right," said Fitzgerald.
DO THE PUNISHMENTS FIT THE CRIMES?
"It takes everything in my being not to scream," Fitzgerald added.
He said all of the local rescues are at capacity.
"I get probably 10 [animals] a month in that are emaciated," he said.
Animal control also has its hands full.
"Sometimes they have 10 a day of reports of abuse and neglect," said Fitzgerald.
LAWS TO PROTECT ANIMALS
There is one law on the books in Alabama where a felony charge applies.
It started with one puppy, who was 7-weeks-old at the time, named Gucci. His eventual owner, Doug James, said he was a very special animal.
"I'd often say, 'If he were human, he'd be the governor.' He could work a crowd," James said.
Gucci was strung up from a tree beaten and set on fire. The juveniles convicted in the crime were given community service. The adult served three weeks in jail.
The case moved James to take action.
"This little guy, he had been set on fire. He had been beaten. That's just not right for somebody to do that to an animal and get away with it," he said.
James began pushing for a law that would make acts like those against Gucci felonies.
"The bill was just kind of laughed out of the legislature. No body really does that," said James.
Six years later, the bill became law.
"We were happy with what we got, because this was the first progressive movement the Alabama legislature has done in a long time," said James.
TWELVE YEARS WITH NO ACTION
Since the passage of Gucci's law 12 years ago, nothing else has been done to protect animals from other forms of cruelty. So the crimes have continued.
"We're about 10 years behind in where we need to be, but I think with everything that's going on I think we can catch up in five years," Fitzgerald said.
In Summerdale, authorities said more than 200 dogs cats and horses were left to die . Those on the scene recalled the animals eating those that had passed just to stay alive.
"There are cases of dog food that was sitting outside the kennels," said Sonja Presley, Executive Director of BARC!
The women that investigators said are responsible are out on $3,000 bond. Their case has been handed over to a grand jury.
"In Alabama, in the southern states, this is just an epidemic," said Fitzgerald.
LINK BETWEEN CHILD ABUSE AND ANIMAL CRUELTY
Some people may say, "Oh well, they're just animals." But there is often a third party involved in these crimes that everyone wants to protect.
Research shows those that abuse animals, most often abuse children as well.
Director of the Child Advocacy Center in Mobile, Pat Guyton, said they pay close attention to animal cruelty cases.
"It's a power thing they want, over those spouses, or over those children, or over those animals. It's anger, unresolved anger. It flares up and suddenly a child has been hurt, or an animal's been hurt, and they don't give it much thought," Guyton said.
Guyton cited three nationally accredited studies.
- The first shows that a person who abuses an animal is five times more likely to abuse a child.
- The second looked at battered women and children's shelters. It found that there was a 90 percent correlation between animal and domestic abuse.
- The third shows people who abuse children are five times more likely to abuse an animal.
"It's happening in our community. It happens right here, that people are being cruel to animals, and that those people that are being cruel to animals are most likely to be cruel to children or others in the home," said Guyton.
Guyton said we all need to push for stronger penalties for animal abuse. It may protect future victims.
"The results of crimes like this should be stiffer than just a slap on the wrist for animal abuse, and so that people will be removed from society for abusing animals and hurting animals," Guyton said.
Linda Dooley is pushing a bill designed to impose harsher penalties for animal cruelty and neglect.
"In 2012, we're still having to put tools in the hands of the judges and in the hands of the prosecutor to say, 'We're not going to allow animal abuse,' and that's kinds of a hard pill to swallow. We should have been further along," Dooley said.
The bill would be an addition to current animal cruelty laws. It would up the penalty from up to six months in jail to a year behind bars.
It would also add an aggravated animal cruelty component. Those convicted under this provision would face a felony.
"We owe it to them [the animals] to protect them to go after the people that are not protecting them," she added.
Alabama Representative Joe Faust introduced the bill this past session. It didn't make it out of committee.
"I don't think there will be one up there that doesn't like animals and would feel the same way that I do about animal cruelty," Faust said.
Faust said the reason the bill didn't have any success is it was introduced near the end of the session. He says many didn't even know it was there.
WHY HAVEN'T THINGS CHANGED?
Alabama Representative Steve McMillan said it's the system.
"The system is setup to kill legislation, not pass it. So there are lots of hurdles that have to be overcome to get a bill passed," McMillan said.
McMillan said now is the time to push animal legislation.
Faust and Dooley will be back in Montgomery in 2013 and said they will get the bill through.
"I'm going to be right up front with this one, because I think we've got the best bill," said Faust.
"We're going to keep going, and we're going to write some more bills, and we're going to keep going with the animal welfare. This isn't the last of animal welfare legislation," Dooley said.
In the meantime, the abuse and neglect continues.
"I've heard one can judge a society by the way they treat their animals," said James.
"There's probably not a day goes by that I don't cry over this," said Fitzgerald.
HOW TO MAKE A CHANGE
If you would like to see a change in the way animal abusers are charged, McMillan said reach out to not only your representatives and senators , but to all of them. He said the public can send letters, emails and make phone calls.
"Persistence. Just working with legislators and making sure they understand the significance of the problem," McMillan said.
Click here to see Florida's animal welfare laws.
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