DES MOINES - Pets would be better protected and animal abuse offenders more extensively punished under legislation being discussed by Iowa lawmakers.
Backers of the bills said animals need greater protection, and those who hurt pets should pay a significant price.
"We feel like we need to send the message that there are those of us that believe that these are egregious acts that have to stop and there has to be more punishment for the actions that are happening," said Tom Colvin, executive director of the Animal Rescue League of Iowa.
Under a bill in the state House, intentional or negligent animal neglect would be considered a serious misdemeanor, rather than the current simple misdemeanor. If an act leads to serious injury or death of a pet, it would be considered an aggravated misdemeanor.
Those who torture an animal could be charged with a felony under the bill rather than an aggravated misdemeanor.
All these changes could significantly increase penalties for those convicted.
Rep. Bobby Kauffman, R-Wilton, said he supported the bill because he wants to raise awareness and discourage animal abuse.
A subcommittee approved the bill this week on a two-to-one vote, with Rep. Rick Olson, D-Des Moines, opposed to the legislation. The bill now goes to the House Judiciary Committee.
Olson said he voted no only because he thought people more well-versed in criminal punishment and public safety should study the bill. The Public Safety Advisory Board, which looks at the operation of the justice system and makes recommendations to legislators, was not consulted prior to drafting the bill, Olson said.
"I won't support it for that reason," he said. "If a committee of people who aren't emotionally attached to it makes a recommendation, then I will."
Colvin, of the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, recalled recent instances of animal abuse, like a woman hanging a dog from the rafters of a garage, in calling for harsher punishments.
In that case, the woman could have faced punishment of two years in prison under current law. Instead, she received a $625 fine and was sentenced to two years of probation.
Under the proposed bill, she could have been charged with a class "D'' felony with a sentence of up to five years in prison along with a fine.
Iowa does not track the number of charges and convictions for animal abuse, but Colvin said based on what he sees, such cases are becoming more prevalent.
Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, is backing a Senate bill that would allow the inclusion of a pet in domestic abuse protective orders, therefore keeping the pet from contact with the abuser.
Adrienne Smith, an advocate with the Greene County Humane Society, has been promoting the issue, arguing that if people can harm another person, there's no reason why that wouldn't lash out against pets as well.
When a victim witnesses such abuse, the situation becomes more complicated, she said.
"We love our animals, and the abuser knows that," Smith said. "A lot of times a victim won't leave the pet behind."
Besides encouraging victims to leave a dangerous situation more quickly, Petersen said it would protect animals as well.
"If a pet is being used as a means of psychologically controlling families and making them feel like they can't leave without the family pet being harmed, it's a bad thing," she said. "We need to do all we can to have Iowans do what they can to be safe from violence."
Lobbyists also are pushing for a bill in the Senate to ban the slaughter of horses. Such a bill has not yet been introduced.