March 30, 2011 1:01:00 PM
JACKSON -- A Mississippi senator who has been pushing for years to strengthen the state''s animal cruelty law says a measure awaiting the governor''s signature is a start, but doesn''t go far enough.
Under the bill passed by the House and Senate, a person who intentionally tortures, burns, starves or disfigures a dog or cat could be charged with aggravated cruelty, which would remain a misdemeanor on a first offense. If another offense occurs within five years, the crime would be a felony.
Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, has been one of the most vocal proponents of an animal cruelty bill. He said he''ll continue work on making the first offense a felony. A conviction could draw a fine of up to $5,000 and a minimum year in jail.
"If I can get re-elected, we''ll try again," Dearing said. "At least we''re no longer one of four states without a felony animal cruelty law."
The bill passed the House on Wednesday. It earlier passed the Senate.
Dearing said the bill doesn''t include the word "kill" when describing an attack on pets. It only mentions torture and related terms. He said killing a dog or cat, even by shooting it, can be animal cruelty.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Greg Ward, D-Ripley, said if an animal is tortured - particularly if it''s burned or disfigured - it''s understood the intent was to kill the pet.
"We have placed felony charges on so many different things, we don''t really comprehend what it means to put that on someone. That''s the most severe penalties we can put on someone," Ward said.
Under the bill, the court can order restitution for the pet''s owner. The court could also order psychiatric evaluation and treatment for violators of the law.
Early opponents of the bill had feared it would hurt farming. The politically powerful Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation and others lobbied against the bill, saying they feared it would hurt agriculture. But during this year''s process, an agreement was reached on the proposal.
Sen. Lydia Chassinol, R-Winona, said she''s hopeful future legislation will include "non-food" animals in the cruelty law. Chassinol said she''s seen pictures of horse that have been beaten or mutilated.
"This is a move in the right direction," she said.