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July 31, 2009

New Arkansas Felony Animal Cruelty Law Fills Deficit

Today, a strong new anti-cruelty law takes effect in Arkansas, making that state the 46th with felony-level penalties for malicious acts of cruelty (all 50 states already treat dogfighting as a felony). The new law makes the torturing of a dog, cat, or horse a felony on the first offense, and cruelty to animals is punishable with up to six years in prison and a fine as high as $10,000. Cockfighting is now a felony offense, with Arkansas the 39th state to have such a law—an enormous achievement in itself. The bill also elevates a number of lesser cruelty offenses, like neglect, to a felony level crime on the fourth offense, and there is also a provision for a five-year sentencing enhancement in the case of anyone convicted of torturing an animal in the presence of a child. There is funding set aside for training law enforcement officers on interpretation and implementation.

The Arkansas statute is a magnificent achievement and the direct result of serious political investments by its sponsors, State Sen. Sue Madison and State Rep. Pam Adcock, and by Gov. Mike Beebe, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, and others who recognized the importance of felony-level penalties for calculated cruelty. For years, the Arkansas Farm Bureau and other agricultural interests had stymied the passage of such legislation, but Attorney General McDaniel, in particular, pulled the parties together and would not take “no” for an answer on this legislation.

One of more than 500 neglected animals found at Every Dog Needs a Home in Arkansas
© The HSUS
One of more than 500 dogs found at the Hanson property.

In an exceptional coincidence, Baxter County, Arkansas Sheriff John Montgomery recently achieved a breakthrough in a case that illustrated the weakness of the existing anti-cruelty statute. On the weekend of July 18, acting on an anonymous tip, Vermont authorities arrested Tammy Hanson, an animal hoarder who fled Arkansas in February 2006 after she and her husband were convicted on 20 misdemeanor counts of cruelty. Sheriff Montgomery went to Vermont to appear at an extradition hearing, acting on behalf of Lawrence County, Missouri, where Hanson faces charges of animal cruelty and neglect in another case, and his own jurisdiction.

We expect Sheriff Montgomery to succeed in his efforts to extradite Hanson to face the penalties for her crimes as well as her contempt for the legal process. It’s worth noting that the maximum sentence she’ll face is $1,000 and up to a year in prison. If she had been charged under a felony-level statute like the one taking effect today, Hanson would have been subject to a penalty truly commensurate with her misdeeds, and it would have been a good deal easier to secure her extradition.

The Hanson case was the focus of a major HSUS emergency response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in October 2005. The Hanson property in Gamaliel, Ark. was an inferno of misery for animals, masquerading as a sanctuary. The Baxter County Sheriff’s Department invited responders from The HSUS and United Animal Nations to set up an emergency operation to shelter and care for more than 500 dogs in various stages of suffering and neglect. For the animals involved, at least 100 of whom were displaced Katrina victims, there were many happy endings, but not before we spent more than $100,000 and completed a full deployment of personnel including then program staffer Tammy Hawley, HSUS consultant Kim Staton, and current Arkansas State Director Desiree Bender, all of whom particularly distinguished themselves in this situation.

To the extent that the Hanson case became Exhibit A for the necessity of a felony-level statute in Arkansas, one that would truly deter cruelty in the state, it was worth every measure of toil, sweat, and funds to meet the demands of the situation. But it’s a greater satisfaction to know that, as of today, the mistreatment of animals in Arkansas, whether by hoarders, puppy millers, cockfighters or others, will be met with a stronger measure of justice, one that is backed by a full array of law enforcement and public officials in the state.

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