Sept. 27, 2004 On the eve of the anti-animal cruelty bill's long-awaited appearance on the full Senate agenda, two items have been made public, one national and one local.
Nationally ESPN.com published a story highlighting a local effort to save abandoned horses, and locally a four-year-old petition opposing the anti-animal cruelty bill is being recirculated.
Titled "A Helping Hand," Bill Finley wrote on the ESPN website of the efforts of three St. John women who have started an organization called The Virgin Islands Community Cooperative Thoroughbred Retirement Effort or VICCTRE. The fledgling organization has been successful in raising money to send three horses to retirement farms in the states.
The story touches on the current animal legislation. Becky Petri, Kate Johnson and Lynn Utech, Finley wrote, "got the local humane society to step in, but that hardly stopped a problem in country where suitable land and space for horses is scarce, animal cruelty laws are only now being written into the books and some thoroughbred owners simply don't care about the welfare of their horses."
And the local petition objects to those very same laws.
A copy of the petition, signed by 169 St. Croix residents, was sent to each senator on Monday from "Concerned Citizens of the U. S. Virgin Islands." Attempts to locate the petition's authors were unsuccessful. There is no contact for the organization, nor any telephone or Internet listing.
The petition states: "We, the undersigned, object to increasing the penalties for animal cruelty added to Bill No. 23-0213."
That bill is several years old. It was the first animal cruelty bill which came before the 23rd Legislature, but never made it out of the Rules Committee. The current bill is No. 25-0149.
Paul Chakroff, St. Croix Animal Shelter executive director, has taken issue with the petition on several counts.
The petition's unsigned cover letter accuses Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, the legislation's primary sponsor, of lacking "the same passion for his fellow human beings" that he has for animals. It says in part, "This attempt to elevate animal welfare above the welfare of the community makes it abundantly clear that some senators regard the people of the V. I. as no better than animals."
In a letter to the Legislature on Monday, Chakroff challenged the anonymous author: "This is simply not true," he said. "Sen. Donastorg and the other senators supporting this bill are not only compassionate, but are aware that the way we treat our animals is a reflection of how we treat people, a correlation that has been understood for over 800 years."
The link between animal cruelty and human violence is well-documented. In an August committee meeting where the bill was unanimously approved, Joe Aubain, Humane Society of St. Thomas president said, "We want to put an end to animal abuse and cruelty, and, in doing so, hopefully reduce the incidence of violence towards women and children. We cannot accomplish this without your help." He noted that 41 states have laws making certain types of animal cruelty a felony offence. "It is my hope that we in the Virgin Islands can soon be added to that list."
The petition states, "What we need is enforcement, public awareness and education, not ridiculous penalties (felony) over trivial offences."
Chakroff would agree that enforcement of current laws is needed. However, he noted the charges in the bill are hardly "trivial" offences.
He said, "Felony charges re reserved for persons convicted of first degree animal abuse and animal neglect. The offences include: maliciously or unnecessarily killing, torturing, maiming, mutilating, disfiguring, wounding, inflicting unjustifiable pain on an animal, or forcing or causing a minor to do the same. These are hardly 'trivial' offences."
The petition's anonymous cover letter says, "As slaves, African people and their descendants were treated as chattel, basically the same as animals. This animal cruelty bill has overtones of the same idea of blurring the line between animal rights and the God given rights of people"
Chakroff responded, "The author of the petition has deliberately or unwittingly mislabeled this bill as animal rights legislation; it is clearly animal welfare legislation. Animal right advocates promote giving animals legal rights such as legal standing and they oppose traditional human uses of animals for medical research."
This, Chakroff points out, is not what animal welfare advocates, which is humane treatment of animals, and the right of animals to food, water, shelter, humane care and freedom from torture and malicious killings.
The territory, sadly, is rife with instances of animal abuse. The Source did a three-part series on the situation last year. (See "Animal Cruelty All Too Common In The Territory.").
Former Sen. Adelbert M. Bryan has in the past been an outspoken opponent of the animal bill. However, he said Monday he had no knowledge of the group circulating the petition, or of the petition. "I don't know about it, I haven't seen it, I have nothing to do with it," he said.
Donastorg was in a Senate meeting Monday, and did not return calls.
The national story on ESPN is some of the most favorable publicity the territory has recently had.
The author commends the tiny organization for it efforts. The women have so far raised enough money to send three horses to a comfortable retirement in the states. They raised the money in a unique way they took one of the horses bar-hopping one afternoon on St. John and managed to fleece the bar patrons of about $2,000, and perhaps gave their livers a brighter future while about it. (See the St. John Source story "V. I. Race Horse Hits The Bars Before Retiring in Florida.").
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