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msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/3/2010 8:23:06 AM ET 2010-02-03T13:23:06

What's the punishment for being cruel to an animal? In five states — Idaho, Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi and North Dakota — the law’s response is, “Not much.”

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Those five states have the weakest animal protection laws in the nation, according to a recent report by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit organization based in Cotati, Calif. The report says the states' failings include not requiring owners provide basic animal care such as adequate food and water, no requirement for mental health evaluations or counseling for those convicted of animal abuse and no restrictions on future ownership of animals following a conviction.

Three of the five states do not consider cruelty, neglect or abandonment a felony. And of the five, only North Dakota regards all animal fighting as a felony, not just dog fighting.

People in these states aren’t more likely to mistreat their animals, says Stephan Otto, ALDF’s director of legislative affairs and author of the report, but the laws haven’t caught up with society’s values.

“Most people treat their animals wonderfully, but the question is whether there are appropriate penalties when they don’t,” he said.

In Mississippi, for instance, the penalties for neglect and dog fighting are the same: a fine of between $10 and $100 or jail time for between 10 and 100 days. Someone who maliciously injures or kills a dog or cat cannot be fined more than $1,000 or imprisoned for more than six months. The only restitution required is the replacement value of the animal, plus the cost of any veterinary fees or other expenses incurred. By contrast, in California, one of the states with tougher penalties, dog fighting is punishable by imprisonment for 16 months to three years, a maximum fine of $50,000 or both.

Kentucky vets not allowed to report abuse
In Kentucky, veterinarians are prohibited from reporting suspected cruelty or fighting, an unintended consequence of a law mandating client confidentiality. Otto says a bill was recently introduced to rectify the problem.

States that are soft on crimes toward animals often have an agricultural lobby that may see animal protection issues as potentially limiting options for farmers, says Francis Battista, a founder and director of Best Friends Animal Society, a non-profit organization based in Kanab, Utah. When animal issues come up, they tend to be put on the back burner in favor of human issues. Cultural or traditional attitudes can also affect the way people relate to animals and the willingness to adopt animal protection laws, he says. People in southern and western states can have an independent mindset that precludes being told how to treat their property, including animals.

In 2009, when a Mississippi man tied his dog to a tree, set her on fire and let her burn to death, it was considered only a misdemeanor. He was fined $1,000 and given a six-month sentence. Last month, the Mississippi legislature introduced a bill that would increase the penalty for acts of cruelty toward dogs and cats. If passed, people convicted of cruelty could go to prison for up to five years and pay a fine of $10,000.

Beyond greater penalties, there are other consequences to being convicted of a felony rather than a misdemeanor, Otto says.

Adopting an abused dog? What to know“Those convicted of felonies will usually serve their sentences in a state or federal prison rather than a local, city or county jail," he says. "A felon will also have more restrictions on their rights than a person convicted of a misdemeanor. In many states, convicted felons cannot serve on juries. They may also lose their right to vote or to practice certain professions, such as lawyer or teacher. Felons may also be prohibited from owning guns or serving in the military.”

Arkansas, which was once ranked at the bottom of the ALDF's annual report, improved its standing last year after the state’s attorney general brought together people from agricultural and animal protection organizations and hammered out an agreement that included a felony penalty for torture, including starving, and neglect, improved the definition of care, and provided for mental health evaluations and counseling. People who commit animal cruelty in the presence of a minor face stronger penalties.

“It catapulted them from the very bottom to the middle,” Otto says.

Many states are taking steps to offer better legal protection for animals, including mandates for mental health evaluations, counseling or restrictions on animal ownership for people who are convicted of animal cruelty. Those are important because people who commit crimes against animals frequently repeat them.

Emergency care for caninesThere’s also a strong connection between animal abuse and other types of violence, particularly domestic violence, a link that has been shown in many studies. A 1997 study by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Northeastern University found that those who had committed a violent crime against an animal were five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people. When animal abuse is addressed early, before it becomes a habit, it can help to reduce overall violence in a community, Otto says.

“We think it’s incumbent that the mental health angle of this is addressed in laws,” Otto says. “A lot of states too are looking at prohibiting those convicted of animal cruelty and neglect from owning animals for a certain period of time after conviction. We think that’s another helpful tool to break the cycle of abuse and potentially eliminate new victims.”

Better definitions of care provide a baseline for pet owners to meet as well as objective criteria for law enforcement to know whether the law has been violated. But in the end, enforcement is key.

“You can have the best laws on the books, but if you’re lacking enforcement, they’re not worth anything,” Otto says.

Second chance for abused animals
The good news is that animals are resilient, Battista says. Whether they have suffered neglect, abandonment or overt physical abuse, they have an amazing ability to respond to rehabilitation efforts.

Video: Vick dog’s new life He would know. Best Friends took in 22 of the 47 dogs rescued from the estate of Michael Vick after he was arrested and charged with conspiracy to engage in dog fighting in violation of the Animal Welfare Act. Many were so shut down and unresponsive due to the abuse they'd likely suffered that they that they would have been euthanized if Best Friends hadn’t taken them, says spokesperson Barbara Williamson. Because of judicial requirements regarding their placement, only a few are in adoptive homes so far, but the rest are at Best Friends or in foster care and all are making progress. Only one is considered aggressive toward people, Williamson says, and even she is now friendly if introduced by someone she trusts. She will stay at Best Friends for the rest of her life.

“Animals are survivors, like people, and they will take every opportunity to respond to help,” Battista says. “Depending on what category of abuse you’re talking about, the way we rehabilitate and the time for rehabilitation might be different. Some animals are never going to be lap cats or lap dogs, but they’ll always improve and they’ll always respond. It’s simply a matter of time and patience.”

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.

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