As the Stone County Sheriff's Department investigates a startling case of animal abuse, a bill in the state Legislature addressing the state's weak penalties for animal cruelty is expected to be stonewalled by the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, The Clarion-Ledger reports.
On Tuesday, six puppies were found dead in a Wal-Mart bag dumped on the side of Old Highway 49 near Riceville Road in McHenry, Stone County Chief Deputy Phyllis Olds said. Investigators suspect one of the puppies, which had a rope around its neck, had been strangled, but the cause of death for the other puppies is unknown.
The Sheriff's Department is short on leads and shorter on recourse. Under Mississippi's animal cruelty law, abuse of dogs or cats is considered a misdemeanor on a first offense, and even egregious cases can result in little more than fines of a few hundred dollars. Cases like this one that involve multiple animals also can only be prosecuted as a single count of cruelty, even if more than one animal was tortured or killed.
"Why can't the Legislature and governing body of Mississippi see we have got to have some way to stop this abuse?" Olds said.
The Farm Bureau would not answer questions on its position but provided a statement: "The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation is adamantly opposed to the cruelty, abuse, or mistreatment of any animal. Farm Bureau would like to see the current law enforced to its fullest extent before adding additional laws."
For Olds, the puppies' deaths were the first of their kind during her nearly 18 years at the Sheriff's Department, but it was far from her first brush with an animal cruelty case. Three years ago, the Stone County Sheriff's Department investigated perhaps the largest dog hoarding case in the agency's history, and Olds was one of the first deputies to see the harrowing scene, where 117 dogs were crammed into a doublewide mobile home.
The first thing Olds saw when she walked through the door was two dogs eating a third, dead dog. The building was littered with urine, feces, dead dogs and dogs so hungry they were eating the sheetrock off the wall.
Some of the dogs had to be euthanized on the spot, Olds said, and the rest were sent to the Southern Pines Animal Shelter in Hattiesburg, where they were nursed back to health. Most of the dogs were later adopted.
The woman who owned the dogs, Shirley Gai, received one charge of animal neglect.
Olds would like to see the portion of the state's law that prevents multiple counts of cruelty charges revamped, as well as other aspects of the law changed.
"Dogs don't have a voice," she said. "We're their voice. We in the United States have got to stand up for people and animals that can't stand up for themselves."
About a year ago, Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, said law enforcement officers from her district approached her when they were unable to charge the owners of about 75 dogs living in deplorable conditions with more than one misdemeanor count of cruelty. With concerns the law doesn't have enough teeth, Hill has filed Senate Bill 2174, which would allow prosecutors to pursue up to 10 counts of cruelty and felony charges on a first offense.
"This is an economic development issue," she said. "When people read in the newspaper that this is going on, do you think people want to live here? We're still in the dark ages when it comes to toleration of things like this."
As it stands now, Mississippi's law doesn't allow prosecutors to charge people who torture or intentionally abuse dogs with a felony if it's their first cruelty offense. An incident in Winona highlighted this issue when Jonathan Thompson received a $327.50 fine for burning his dog alive last year.
"Violence is violence. Anger is anger," said Doll Stanley, director of the Justice for Animals Campaign for nonprofit In Defense of Animals. "People who harm animals to the degree we are seeing, we often delve into their lives and we see they are abusive people, period. Many times, I've gone on cruelty investigations and have experienced the wrath of the person I was investigating, and it was very clear to me they have issues."
The state's current law was passed in 2011, making Mississippi the 47th state with felony charges for cruelty against dogs and cats. Gulfport Mayor and former Senate leader Billy Hewes said the Legislature felt a need at the time to strengthen the law.
"There are those who say people who have a pattern of abuse like this also tend to have issues with humans, as well," he said. "For people who have a history of cruelty, there need to be sanctions, whether it's against animals or certainly people."
Under the current law, those who commit simple cruelty, which includes depriving a dog or cat of food, water or shelter, face a maximum fine of $1,000, up to six months in jail or both. Aggravated cruelty, which includes torturing, starving, burning or disfiguring a dog or cat, is considered a misdemeanor on the first offense, with punishment of up to a $2,500 fine, up to six months in jail or both. A second offense of aggravated cruelty is only considered a felony if it's done within five years of the first conviction, and carries a penalty of a $5,000 fine and one to five years of jail time.
Senate Bill 2174 carries the same penalty for simple cruelty as the current law, but would make incidents of aggravated cruelty felony offenses. The punishment would be the same as the law outlines now for felony cruelty convictions -- a fine of up to $5,000 and between one and five years of jail.
However, the Farm Bureau has a successful history of blocking animal cruelty legislation. The year before the state's current cruelty law passed, the Farm Bureau lobbied against a similar bill that eventually died, citing potential harm to agriculture, although it was already a felony to abuse farm animals.
Last year, Hill filed a bill similar to Senate Bill 2174 that stalled after discussion in the Judiciary Committee, which included comment from a Farm Bureau lobbyist. Hill said the Farm Bureau has already made calls across the state discouraging the passage of the current bill.
"Their argument is it's a slippery slope," she said. "If we make stricter laws for domesticated animals, we're opening a door where we wouldn't be able to use current livestock and farming practices, which is a total stretch."
Senate Bill 2174 says multiple times that it only applies to dogs and cats. It also explicitly says it doesn't apply to livestock, agricultural activity, hunting, fishing or laboratory research.
"It's ridiculous to think protecting animals from being burnt to death, beat to death and starved would cross over into other areas of animal use," Stanley said.
The Mississippi Animal Advocacy Group plans to protest the Farm Bureau at its headquarters on Saturday at 11 a.m., writing in a press release that the bureau is "using fear tactics to fight a bill that offers reasonable protection for pets."