April 29, 2005 April is Prevention of Animal Cruelty month. Animal advocates hope that is a good omen, as the Animal Cruelty bill, once again, is on the front burner.
The bill was passed unanimously by the 25th Legislature last September, and vetoed by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull. It was introduced in the 26th Legislature in February, where it received another unanimous vote, only to receive Turnbull's second veto in March.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, the bill's primary sponsor, announced this week he will move for an override of the governor's veto in next Wednesday's Senate session.
The bill would make first-degree abuse, which includes: killing, torturing, cutting off ears or tails by anyone other than a licensed veterinarian, poisoning animals, or trapping animals for fighting, a felony punishable by up to five years in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000.
Currently these offenses are misdemeanors carrying minimum fines. Enforcement is rarely, if ever, imposed.
The bill would bring the territory in line with most other jurisdictions under the American flag
Turnbull contends that the "punishment doesn't fit the crime." He called the new penalties "draconian." The governor also objected to the legislation not outlawing cockfighting.
Joe Elmore, Humane Society of St. Thomas executive director, disagrees. He sent a mass e-mail to supporters Thursday, urging them to come to the Senate Wednesday to support the override.
However, the person Elmore most wants to influence is Turnbull. He said he has tried to see the governor for more than seven months to no avail. Elmore has said he feels if he could talk one on one with the governor, he could state his case effectively. He said no one in Turnbull's administration has ever attended a hearing on the bill.
Elmore says the penalties are not as severe as federal penalties for animal abuse. He said the average maximum fine for first-degree animal abuse in the U.S. is $16,200 and a jail sentence of 3.44 years. The maximum fine in the current legislation is $5,000, with a maximum three-year sentence.
The bill was first introduced to the Legislature more than five years ago. It has arguably suffered as much abuse in the political process over the past five years, as the animals it seeks to protect.
Elmore said Thursday, that he fears the proposed override may fall victim to just that. The 12 votes with which the bill passed in February could represent an easy override, which takes 10 votes. But Elmore said in his e-mail message that it might not be that easy. "Unfortunately," Elmore wrote, "it is no longer an 'animal cruelty' issue it is a political issue. Although our senators have overwhelmingly supported this bill in two consecutive legislatures, the majority and minority are split, unwilling to work together, and are 'using' this bill to create a more divided legislature. It has nothing to do with the bill." Donastorg said in a release this week that he has written his colleagues seeking their support. "The only opposition to this bill is politically motivated," Donastorg said. "Let's hope that these petty concerns are set aside. We must remember our success as a society is measured by how we treat the most helpless among us."
In the February vote, Sens. Craig Barshinger, Lorraine 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. Juan Figueroa-Servile and Neville James abstained, and Sen. Louis Hill was absent.
Figueroa-Serville said then that he needed more time to peruse the legislation. Elmore said at that time that he would "distribute information to the new senators." On Thursday, Elmore encouraged supporters to contact the senators, write newspapers, call radio and television, and "demand the override no more excuses." He included a list of all senators and their contacts.
Turnbull isn't the only one to have objected to the exclusion of cockfighting in the bill. Several senators in the 24th Legislature voiced that concern. However, Donastorg and Elmore both say that including a cockfighting ban would mean instant death for the bill, which is what happened in the 24th Legislature. Senators have been extremely wary of signing their names to a cockfighting ban, which could cost them valuable votes. The sport is deeply rooted culturally and economically in some elements of the community.
Elmore said, "We are vehemently opposed to and abhor cockfighting. The bill strengthens current law …. Trust us, we will take on cockfighting at the right time and the right place."
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