A few animal welfare organizations are hopeful the Iowa Senate will pass a bill this upcoming legislative session to stiffen the penalties for animal cruelty.
The bill is House File 737, and it passed the Iowa House unanimously during the 2019 session. Iowa is one of only two states where animal torture is not a felony on the first conviction, and this bill will change that. It also changes the language of what constitutes animal torture. For instance, under the current law, a prosecutor must prove a defendant inflicted severe physical pain on an animal with “depraved or sadistic intent.”
Colin Grace, the director of the Animal Rescue League of Iowa’s Legal and Legislative Initiative, said that even when a defendant is clearly guilty of torturing an animal, it’s difficult to prove in court that they did so with “depraved or sadistic intent,” which the courts have understood to mean deriving pleasure from the act.
“We never encounter that language anywhere else in the Iowa code,” Grace said.
Grace spoke about a case where a man killed a puppy with a baseball bat, but the prosecutor could not prove he did so with “sadistic intent.” Those are the kind of outcomes Grace hopes this proposed law will change, because it will remove that language. Instead, the prosecution must prove that the defendant inflicted severe and prolonged physical pain to an animal that caused it serious injury or death.
Furthermore, the proposed law would upgrade animal torture from an aggravated misdemeanor to a Class D felony. In practice, this means extending the length of jail time from a maximum of two years (misdemeanor) to up to five years (Class D felony). Under current law, animal torture is only a felony if the defendant has already been convicted of it once before. It’s not a felony on the first offense, and this bill would change that.
There are three tiers of animal abuse in Iowa: neglect, abuse and torture. House File 737 would amend the definitions of all three, not just the most severe. Preston Moore, Iowa State director of the Humane Society of the United States, said Iowa law is vague on what constitutes “neglect.” The current wording requires animal owners to “provide a sufficient quantity of food and water and adequate shelter,” but does not define those terms further.
Moore said he believes this wording has resulted in miscarriages of justice.
“We see one or two cases a year where a dog was left outside in a plastic igloo house and froze to death,” he said. “But because the animal was given food, water and shelter, those cases don’t see charges, because the law doesn’t say [the animal] must be protected from the elements.”
The proposed law would require animals to receive “food sufficient that the animal’s health or life is not endangered,” “shelter reasonably sufficient to protect from the elements and weather,” and a host of other stipulations not found in the current law.
Exemption for owners
The middle tier, abuse, only applies to acts committed against another person’s animal, not your own. The proposed law would change that, too. The current law allows a person to commit animal abuse if they are acting with the consent of the owner, another exemption HF 737 would remove.
“When prosecutors are looking at charges, it’s almost always somebody hurting their own dog,” said Grace, who added that Iowa’s exemption for animal abuse committed by owners is “a total mystery to me. I can’t think of a decent justification.”
Grace said that, in practice, prosecutors end up charging defendants with only animal neglect even when the facts show they did something much worse. This is because prosecutors have difficulty meeting the high bar required to prove animal torture (which requires “sadistic intent”), and because charging a defendant with animal abuse is not possible if they are the animal’s owner.
Moore said that Iowa’s values have shifted since its animal cruelty law was written, and that Iowans today see companion animals as more than simply pieces of property.
“We are their caretakers. We have to make sure they’re given what they need to thrive,” Moore said. “We shouldn’t beat an animal. You never see letters to the editor saying ‘That was OK because this guy owned the dog.’ People want to see animals treated well, and they want to see those who abuse animals to be punished.”
So far, more than 60 organizations have signed a letter in support of HF 737, including local animal shelters such as Noah’s Ark Animal Foundation and PAWS & More. The bill applies only to companion animals and not to livestock. Grace said treatment of livestock is governed by a separate chapter of Iowa code.
“There is some concern in the Legislature that making changes to companion animal welfare laws will have a spillover effect into regulating agriculture or doing harm to ag interests, which is an overblown fear,” Grace said. “And it’s a bad excuse not to do something appropriate. Our neighboring states have better animal cruelty laws than we do, and the sky isn’t falling on their ag economies because of it.”
Grace said one of the reasons prosecuting animal abuse is important is that it’s often a precursor to abuse of humans. A 1983 study found that animal abuse was present in 88 percent of homes in which child abuse was being investigated. A 1997 study by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Northeastern University found that animal abusers were five times as likely to also harm other humans.
“It’s entered the popular zeitgeist that serial killers start with the neighborhood cat, and that is born out in the research,” Grace said.
For that reason, HF 737 allows the court to order a convicted animal abuser to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and treatment.
“If somebody is abusing a cat, dog or other companion animal, that should be a red flag that this person needs a mental health evaluation and treatment so their issues don’t worsen over time,” Grace said.
In November, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into a law the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act. Though all 50 states had felony provisions against animal cruelty (In Iowa, only after the second offense), there was no federal ban against animal cruelty and torture, until this law was passed.
The PACT Act will make it more efficient for federal prosecutors to bring a case that occurs across state lines, and would apply to acts committed on federal property such as a military base or national park. It would not apply to state or county land. Moore said the PACT Act is a welcome addition to the campaign to end animal cruelty.
The state government is taking steps to improve commercial dog breeding facilities, too. Mindi Callison, executive director and founder of the organization Bailing Out Benji, said she was glad to learn the Iowa Department of Agriculture has proposed raising the standard of care for such facilities such as ensuring that dogs are never chained as a means of primary enclosure, given a solid resting area, housed in clean facilities and enclosures, and protected from extreme temperatures.
Callison’s organization seeks to end “puppy mills,” a term that refers to dog breeders who cut corners in veterinary care and quality of food, while making dogs live in tightly confined areas, all to save money.
“Dogs in puppy mills exist solely to produce puppies and are not treated like pets,” the organization states on its website.
Callison said the announcement from the Iowa Department of Agriculture is a breath of fresh air, because the state had earned a reputation as one with lax laws on puppy mills.
“Iowa is constantly one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to puppy mills,” Callison said. “We are not only one of the states with the highest volume of commercial dog breeding facilities, but those facilities are full of violations that push Iowa to the top of the list when it comes to the worst puppy mills. Since the beginning of the [Humane Society’s] ‘Horrible Hundred Puppy Mill List’ in 2013, Iowa has held 72 of those spots.”
Callison said life for a breeding dog in a puppy mill is isolated and lonely. Some dogs live in cages only 6 inches bigger than their bodies, and stand on wire flooring all day, to make it easier for the owner to clean up feces and urine.
“These wire cages cause paw, leg and spine deformities for the dogs who are trying to find comfortable ways to stand,” Callison said. “The adult dogs are not handled, they are not walked, they are not given toys, their health and injuries are ignored. They are essentially living in a factory farm that produces puppies instead of meat.”