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HomeNewsArchivesV.I. Animal Cruelty May Finally Be a Thing of the Past

V.I. Animal Cruelty May Finally Be a Thing of the Past

Sept. 30, 2004 – Early Wednesday afternoon the territory took a major step in protecting its creatures, great and small.
After years of an all-but-endless uphill battle, the anti-cruelty animal bill was unanimously approved by the full Senate. It will become law after the governor signs it. The legislation brings the territory in step with most other jurisdictions under the American flag which make animal abuse a felony.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, the bill's primary sponsor, said he wasn't that surprised at the unanimous vote. "I think it shows that all my colleagues recognize the relationship between personal violence and animal abuse. If we can curtail violence against animals, we may be able to address violence against human beings."
"It's hard to sum up in a word exactly how I feel, and the importance of this legislation," he said, "but this demonstrates to me that the senators advocated humanitarian movements in protecting the rights of living creatures."
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.
Word of the bill's passage spread quickly around the islands. The vote to help God's creatures who cannot help themselves came at a time when the community is particularly sensitive to violence issues. The brutal murder of a 4-year-old child earlier in the week has left residents in a state of shock, hardly able to believe that such an act could have happened here.
Education about our relationships with animals is key to understanding violent behavior, experts say. The relationship between animal and human violence has been well-documented. And it has been brought before the Senate on numerous occasions, to no particular avail until last month when it successfully passed through the Senate Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice and Rules committees, with much testimony from animal advocates.
For a while in Wednesday's meeting it looked like rough sledding, as some senators voiced lukewarm approval for all the bill's proposals. For instance, some objected to penalties they said were more severe than those for humans.
Sen. Usie Richards said the bill is well-intentioned, but, he said, "one thing is missing, not in this bill, but in this body. When are we going to begin to address the cruelty of people to people? The quality of education and of housing is downright disgusting."
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste worried about his cats. "Every dog must have his day in the V.I. Legislature, but what about cats?" he asked. Jn Baptiste said he has 10 cats, "and I am not authorized to use deadly force if I have dogs in my yard trying to kill my cats. And this bill tells me I must sit back and do nothing about it. Thank God I haven't killed or poisoned one of them. We need some balance here," he said.
Donastorg later said he assured Jn Baptiste that he has a right to assault anyone coming into his home, animal or human.
Sen. Louis Hill was bemused at Jn Baptiste's statement. "It's not dog-eat-dog, but dog-eat-cat. I thought that was very funny. He is passionate about his position and I respect that."
Sen. Luther Renne, a former educator, said, "There is a correlation between delinquency and the way students treat animals. When we would give the students animals to raise, we could see the evolution in terms of reducing delinquent behavior when the child relates to animals and learns how to treat them."
Sen. Ronald Russell, one of the bill's sponsors, voiced concern about cockfighting's not being included in the legislation. "You can't put cockfighting in because everybody on St. Croix and St. Thomas likes cockfighting. I am disheartened," he said.
Chakroff, Donastorg and other animal advocates, after intensive deliberation, decided not to include a ban on cockfighting in the legislation because it is a surefire way to kill it. They reasoned that the most important thing, at this stage, is to get this legislation passed. (See "Pickard-Samuel, Bryan Kill Animal Rights Bill").
The animal advocate community was ecstatic at the news. All of them said they were almost speechless, but all managed to express themselves.
Paul Chakroff, St. Croix Animal Shelter executive director, said, "I am thrilled. I don't take any credit for this one. It's wonderful. It's the work of Mary Edwards (former shelter director), Lisa Yntema, Barbara Vozt and many others. The work on this started many years ago here on St. Croix. I send congratulations to the senators for stepping up to the plate."
Chakroff, in fact, held the first Caribbean animal welfare conference in the territory last fall where people from all over the area came to the three-day conference. (See "Animal Advocates Gained a Sense of Community").
Joe Aubain, Humane Society of St. Thomas president, said, "I just think it's great news for the V.I. The passage is a great step forward. The less we see animals being abused, the less we will see of human abuse. There will be a measurable decline, and it will take time. I'm grateful to all the senators for the unanimous vote. It's a good day not only for the animals, but for the community at large. Now we can join the other 41 states who have made animal abuse a felony."
Christine O 'Keefe, animal advocate and former Humane Society board member, couldn't believe her ears. "Oh, my God," she said, "It's wonderful news. What can I say? To me it's an indication of growth in the V.I. in every way. It's a step to maturation in our society."
She added, "To me, cruelty is a product of ignorance, and I'm hoping this is a sign of growing enlightenment. There's a plethora of evidence that if someone abuses an animal, ultimately they will strike against a human."
Joe Elmore, Humane Society of St. Thomas executive director, echoed the sentiments expres
sed by others. "It's a great day, a long day, in coming for the territory," he said. "The animal care community has been working on this for years and years."
Elmore hit on a critical issue: "Enforcement will be the key to making this bill effective," he said. "We will be working in conjunction with law enforcement to effectively implement the legislation."
Randy Knight, Knight Quality Stations owner and philanthropist who has hugely helped the new Humane Society campus, has monitored every painful step of this legislation. "It's certainly a victory for all God's creatures," he said. "It will be instrumental in ending the rampant abuse and neglect in the territory. And, I want to thank the senators for their unanimous vote."
Shortly after twilight Wednesday, an iguana was seen crawling out from under the bougainvillaea on the Legislature grounds. "Well," he muttered, "at last."
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