February 9, 2011 12:18:00 PM
JACKSON - The Mississippi Senate passed two bills Wednesday aimed at strengthening the state''s animal cruelty law by making it a felony to maliciously injure, torture or kill a cat or dog.
Currently, anyone accused of such offenses can only be charged with a misdemeanor.
A bill filed by Sen. Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport, would make animal cruelty a felony on the first offense. The second bill, filed by Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, would make it a felony on the second offense.
Dearing said he''s received more than 1,000 e-mail from every state and several countries in recent weeks, urging him to continue his push for a felony law. Legislators say Mississippi is one of four states without a felony law for abusing pets.
Under Dearing''s bill, a first offense is a misdemeanor. A second offense would be an aggravated cruelty charge and a violator could face up to five years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. For either offense, the court could order restitution for the value of the cat or dog and the costs of veterinarian fees, medicine and loss of income.
For aggravated cruelty, the court could also order mental evaluation and treatment, community service and periodic unannounced visits to inspect a violator''s dogs and cats.
Senate Judiciary B Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said studies have found that many criminals had an early history of torturing animals. He said stiffening state law may help "identify these individuals early on before they get to people."
Tollison also said there''s already a state law making it a felony to harm livestock, and the proposals would just add cats and dogs to the list of animals.
Tollison said there are exceptions to the proposals, including if an animal is on private property or if someone kills an animal in self-defense.
The bills now move to the House, where similar legislation has failed in recent years.
Sen. Terry Brown, a Republican from Columbus who voted for the bill, said "I''ve got a lot of cattle farmers in my area and they''re bad against this thing."
A House committee chairman opted not to bring the animal cruelty bill up for debate in 2010 after it passed the Senate. The politically powerful Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation and others lobbied against the bill, saying they feared it would hurt agriculture if protections were extended to animals other than cats or dogs.