Feb. 12, 2005 If cats have nine lives, the Animal Cruelty bill must have twice that. Just when the bill's passage looks hopeless, a new legislative effort springs to life, which is what happened in the Senate Friday as, once again, the bill passed in who knows what incarnation.
The bill has been sinking and surfacing since 2000.
Though Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, the bill's primary sponsor, and Joe Elmore, Humane Society of St. Thomas executive director, were enormously pleased at the bill's passage on a 12-0 vote with two not voting and one absent, their enthusiasm was tempered with caution. They, and all the animal advocates in the territory have been down this road too many times.
The legislation would bring the territory in step with most other jurisdictions under the American flag which make animal abuse a felony.
Friday's 12 votes could represent an easy override 10 votes should the governor send it back with a second veto, or the 12 could fall apart. Politics is politics.
Just when it look like smooth sailing in September after the Senate's unanimous approval, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, with one stroke of his veto pen, summarily brought to an abrupt halt years of effort from animal advocates and animal shelter groups.
Elmore says he will use the time between Friday and such time as the bill reaches Government House to lobby for its passage. "It gives us time now," Elmore said, "to distribute information to the new senators, and to hope the governor will look at the new bill and reconsider."
The new legislation addressees one of Turnbull's major concerns. A section of the bill he vetoed allows a person to enter another's yard if a domestic animal is without food or water for 12 consecutive hours and provide necessary food and water.
Turnbull was concerned that this section could create legal trespassing problems. The new legislation reads: "any person designated by the Department of Agriculture, or any peace officer, from time to time, as considered necessary to enter into any pound or area in which an animal is confined and supply it with necessary food and water as long as it remains so confined."
The governor labeled sections of the bill "overreaching and draconian." He cited an instance of a person removing an egg from a bird's nest being subjected to a year in prison. Should Turnbull think that "draconian," the federal law for stealing eggs out of the nests of migratory birds can be as high as a $15,000 fine, Elmore pointed out, with documentation.
The new bill doesn't touch cockfighting, which the governor also objected to. Animal advocates and senators have discussed the issue at extreme length. The fact is that including a cockfighting ban would mean instant death for the bill. (See "V.I. Animal Cruelty May Finally be a Thing of the Past").
The bill has been around since 2000, and it has suffered various fates, none of them much better than the fates of the animals the legislation seeks to protect. Since that time, countless animals have been starved, set on fire, drowned, mutilated or poisoned. A horse was set on fire on St. Croix earlier this year, only to slowly begin to recover when unknown persons sneaked in to its stall and poisoned it. The list of abuse is long and horrendous.
The legislation increases fines and penalties for first and second degree animal abuse and neglect.
First-degree abuse, a felony: The bill calls for up to five years in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for anyone who inflicts first-degree abuse on animals, which includes killing, torturing, cutting off ears or tails by anyone other than a licensed veterinarian, poisoning animals, or trapping animals for fighting.
Second-degree abuse, a misdemeanor: People convicted of inflicting second-degree animal abuse would face up to a year in jail and a fine of $500. These offenses include inflicting pain, leading an animal from a vehicle or motor vehicle-driven trailer in a malicious or negligent manner, and transporting animals in a malicious manner.
First-degree neglect, a felony: The bill makes first-degree animal neglect punishable by up to three years in jail and a fine of $1,000. Offenses include failing to provide adequate care for animals, abandoning an animal, disposing of a live animal in a Dumpster or garbage disposal site, allowing sick or old animals to suffer, failing to provide aid after hitting an animal with a vehicle, and subjecting an animal to high temperatures while confined in a vehicle.
Second-degree animal neglect, a misdemeanor: Offenders would face a fine of up to $100 and up to 100 hours of community service. Offenses include failing to provide food and water for more than 12 consecutive hours. The bill appropriates $100,000 from the General Fund to administer the new law.
Friday's Senate vote was dicey, even though Donastorg persuaded all seven of his majority colleagues to co-sponsor the bill. The senator wanted minority senators' votes to shore up the tally in the event of a veto and subsequent override.
The minority senators were very hesitant. Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville said, though he approved of the purpose of the bill, he would need time to study the legislation, a thought echoed by some of his colleagues. Figueroa-Serville, however, signed on to two massive bills of Senate President Lorraine Berry's the Omnibus Justice and Financial Services Acts. In the case of the former, senators were left little choice, as that was the bill to which non-germane amendments were allowed.
Elmore sat in the Senate chambers Thursday and Friday, awaiting the bill's fate and actively lobbying the senators. Two full days in the Senate chambers can be wearisome. However, when the bill passed Friday afternoon, the wait was well worth it, Elmore said. He was encouraged by the near unanimous vote. He said, "Having two Legislatures overwhelmingly pass this bill puts a lot of pressure on the governor."
Sens. Craig Barshinger, Berry, Roosevelt David, Liston Davis, Donastorg, Pedro Encarnacion, Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence Nelson, Usie Richards, Ronald Russell and Celestino A. White Sr. supplied the 12 positive votes. Sens. Figueroa-Servile and Neville James abstained, and Sen. Louis Hill was absent.
Elmore reiterated Friday what he had said when the bill was vetoed. "The executive branch was absent during important hearings on the legislation, and did not hear the overwhelming data supporting the linkage between domestic abuse and animal abuse."
Malone said Friday, "There is a link between animal abuse and crime. This is an indirect way to help the youth of the territory and to curb violence."
Russell expressed grave doubts both days because of the felony clause. "A person can lose his right to vote, and I have a problem with that," he said.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, beaming in his new vice presidential post to the left of Berry, talked about his cats. "We have 13 cats,"he said. "I love my cats and give them only the very best food. I treat them all like princesses and princes." When the Senate gave its unanimous vote last September, Jn Baptiste had demurred about his distrust of dogs harming his own cats, before casting his positive vote.
Berry gave the St. Thomas shelter an unexpected boost Tuesday. She sent a memo to all senators and division heads encouraging them to become Society members. Berry urged them to join her in a renewed commitment. "We, as a law making body, cannot let the atrocities committed against our animals continue," she said. "Let us, the 26th Legislature, pass the necessary laws to end the horrible cruelty to animals that has existed far too long in our beautiful Virgin Islands."
It usually takes somewhere between 10 days to two weeks for a bill to wend its way to Government House, although
it can be longer. The Senate legal counsel has to make all legislation legally sufficient.
So, it's hurry up and wait again for the animal community where hope never dies. The bill still has a couple lives left.
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