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Lawmakers look to strengthen state animal cruelty laws after multiple puppy mills busts

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American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals volunteers rescue 170 dogs from a puppy mill at a home west of Manly on Monday. The dogs were found in "appalling and overcrowded conditions," according to a press release.

DES MOINES - Recent high profile cases are providing momentum to Iowa state lawmakers looking to strengthen the state's animal protection laws, among the weakest in the nation, according to animal welfare advocacy organizations.

Manly resident Barbara Kavars, 66, was charged this month with 17 counts of misdemeanor animal neglect - no death or serious injury.

Kavars asked the Worth County Magistrate Court to allow her to keep 13 animals, nine Samoyeds and four house cats, of the 154 animals seized by the Worth County Sheriff's Office and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in November.

According to Iowa code, animal neglect charges are simple misdemeanors and, if found guilty, are punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or a fine between $65 and $625 per count.

Iowa’s protection laws ranked 48th in the country in 2018, according to analysis of state laws by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which advocates for strong animal protection laws and assists attorneys who prosecute animal abusers.

Iowa is low in the rankings in part because the state has no felony for first offense of animal cruelty and no clear legal definition of basic standards of care for animals.

Multiple proposals have been introduced at the Iowa Capitol, and some are working their way through the legislative process. It remains to be seen whether there is sufficient support among all state lawmakers to pass any of the proposals into law.

Some of the proposals address animal cruelty in broad terms, while another attempts to address so-called puppy mills -- large volume dog breeders that do not sufficiently care for their dogs.

One proposal that addresses animal cruelty laws and punishments this past week was unanimously approved by the Iowa House, 96-0.

“I’m not one to champion simply increasing criminal sanctions for no good reason, but in this case after spending a lot of time with our current (law) and talking to animal rights advocates, I would have to agree that our current criminal sanctions for animal neglect, abuse and torture are too low,” said Mary Wolfe, a Democratic state representative from Clinton and an attorney.

That proposal, House File 737, would add felony as a first offense in cases of animal torture, remove language that currently makes it difficult for law enforcement to charge individuals with torture, and allows judges to order a psychiatric evaluation for someone convicted of torture.

Current law requires proof of “sadist” or “depraved” intent in order to convict an individual of animal torture. Animal welfare advocates say that creates an unfairly high bar for conviction.

That requirement would be removed under the proposal approved by the Iowa House.

And the option for a judge to order a psychiatric evaluation in a torture conviction is necessary to protect not only animals but humans, said Bobby Kaufmann, a state representative from Wilton who pointed to studies that have shown links to individuals who torture animals and later in life commit violent crimes against humans.

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“If you’ve got the predisposition to torture a puppy or a kitten, you’re probably going to graduate to humans,” Kaufmann said. “Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also (could stop) future attacks on people.”

In the past, lawmakers have been hesitant to strengthen the state’s animal cruelty laws primarily due to concerns raised by farmers and organizations that represent them. Any attempt to strengthen animal cruelty laws could create burdensome regulations on livestock farmers, they say.

Lawmakers say they have addressed those concerns in the current proposals by writing the legislation to specifically address pets, or their legal term, companion animals. And the proposals would amend a portion of state law that is different from the one that deals with livestock.

Dog breeders also have expressed concern that strengthened animal cruelty laws could be harmful to their businesses if not carefully considered, written and enforced.

But lawmakers said they worked with all stakeholders to draft a proposal with which all parties would be comfortable.

That effort may have paid off. Organizations that want to offer their perspective on legislative proposals can register with a state registry, and on the proposal that passed the House there is no organization registered in opposition.

“I think what’s been very encouraging is for the first time that I’ve ever been here, both the agriculture community, the dog breeders as well as the animal rescue people have come together in regard to some agreement,” said Brad Zaun, a Republican state senator from Urbandale. “That’s really, really encouraging.”

Zaun has his own proposal working its way through the legislative process, Senate File 369, as does a bill written by Republican state senators Tom Shipley of Nodaway and Dan Dawson of Council Bluffs. The latter, Senate File 57, is not as strong; animal welfare advocates prefer Zaun’s proposal or the one that passed the House.

With multiple proposals moving, lawmakers must reach a consensus on which proposal is best that can also receive enough votes to get it approved and sent to Gov. Kim Reynolds for her consideration.

“It’s my intention and I’m very hopeful that we will get something through,” Zaun said. “We’ve got to get something done to go from (48th) and move our way up.”

A separate proposal would deal specifically with puppy mills by setting legal baselines for standards of care.

That proposal creates regulations for dog breeders --- including that they provide for all their dogs adequate water, space to move, and other requirements --- requires the state ag department to perform an annual inspection of each licensed breeder, and increases penalties for some violations, among other provisions.

The criminal complaints against Kavars detailed alleged neglect on 17 Samoyeds, including instances of open wounds, kennels full of feces, lack of food, lack of drinkable water, dogs considered thin to extremely thin, dehydration, parasites and strong odor of ammonia.

Several of the dogs listed were pregnant.  

“Kavars stated there was nothing wrong with her dogs,” the criminal complaints said.

Worth County Magistrate Douglas Krull ruled in January that the animals were deemed “threatened animals” and would not be returned to Kavars.

“The conditions in which the animals are kept, including the limitations of food, water, and the existence of any foul order (sic), the presence of matted fur, abscesses, chewed ears, bacterial infection and parasites support a finding of neglect,” Krull said.

Kavars is nextscheduled to appear April 11 in Worth County District Court.

Kaufmann said he hopes dog breeders work with him on the legislation so they can support it.

“I freely tell you and anybody else that 95 percent of dog breeders are doing great work. So I’ve told them if there are problems with the bill, come to me because the goal of this whole thing is to root out the 5 percent,” Kaufmann said. “The 5 percent, the bad actors that give the good actors a bad name need to be put out of business.”

The puppy mill bill, House File 738, does not have as much legislative momentum as the animal cruelty bill; no action has yet been taken on it.

“Something’s got to happen, whether it’s this year or next year, or two years from now,” Kaufmann said. “It’d like everybody to come to a consensus and get it done this year while we have a live round.”

Photos: Inside the kennels, home of a North Iowa woman accused of running a puppy mill

 

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Contact Courtney at 641-421-0534 or on Twitter @CourtneyFiorini.

 

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