The current law in New York state dealing with animal abuse is, according to Ontario County District Attorney R. Michael Tantillo, “a disaster.”
“The statutes we have to work with in (the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets) now are 150 years old,” he said. “The terminology is outmoded, not relevant to today’s society and difficult to work with. Police don’t have ready access to those statutes — they’re arcane and hard to find.”
That could all change if a new bill is passed in Albany.
Assembly member Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat from the 67th District, has introduced the Consolidated Animal Crimes Bill, with more than two dozen co-sponsors.
“The largest problem for law enforcement is that all of the (animal abuse) laws are in the Ag and Market code,” she said. “Police officers, courts, district attorneys get updates on the penal code, but they don’t get an update on Ag and Markets, and they may not be aware of new penalties and laws.”
Rosenthal’s bill and a similar one filed by State Sen. Andrew Lanza, a Republican from the 24th District, do several things: “It offers some stronger penalties,” said Rosenthal. “By putting these crimes into the penal code, they will be viewed more seriously. The bill makes things more comprehensible so law enforcement can understand (cases of abuse) in the right context. The bill unifies streamlining of criminal procedure, training, legal terminology and judicial philosophy, all put together in the penal code.”
Tantillo said he hopes the bill gets passed, adding, “I very strongly support it.”
He said the changes suggested in Rosenthal’s bill will put into place “terminology that conforms with the other definitions in penal law, which will make these cases much easier to prosecute.
“What happens right now, the cases we have require us to prove that an animal was ‘driven’ or ‘overloaded’; we have to make distinctions between ‘wild’ and ‘tame,’” Tantillo said. “There are inadequate definitions of ‘shelter’ and ‘sustenance.’ Realistically, we’re trying to deal with 19th century concepts in the 21st century. Right now, we have to work with one hand tied behind our backs.”
Chief William McGuigan of the Ontario County Humane Society agreed that “putting more specificity in the law would make it that much easier to prosecute people.” He’s hoping the definitions will clear up fuzzy areas, and what “sustenance” means is one of them.
“That primarily falls under not feeding and water, but what about refusing to get medical attention to an animal that needs it?” McGuigan said. “That’s failure to provide ‘sustenance’ as well.”
He added, “we’re seeing more of these neglect-type cases, not the outright torture or doing anything intentional to the animals.”
McGuigan referred to a recent horse case in Honeoye, where he said animals were starving and dehydrated.
Earlier this month, a Phelps woman was charged with aggravated cruelty to animals after an investigation indicated that she allegedly failed to provide sustenance for cats for which she was the owner and caretaker, according to the humane society. The humane society stated that three cats were alive but in need of veterinary care, and four were dead.
And last week, two people were charged with aggravated cruelty to animals after the humane society stated that it found a dog to be emaciated and in need of veterinary care in a home in Shortsville.
Kristin Simon, the senior cruelty caseworker for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the proposed law, which is now in the New York State Senate and Assembly Agriculture committees, “is definitely a step in the right direction. If passed, it will make cruelty to animal violations more easily findable, and easier for law enforcement to understand them if they’re put in the penal code, where they are in most states.”
She said that police officers have a copy of the penal code in their cruisers — but they don’t have the Ag and Markets codes. In terms of animal protection, Simon said, “New York is on its way to being one of the better states. With these (new and) decent penalties in place, the law, if enforced, can really pack a punch.”
Some opponents of the law are concerned that farmers might be at risk for charges of abuse. Rosenthal doesn’t buy it.
“If a farmer is doing everything right, he has nothing to be concerned about,” she said. “Not everyone treats their animals properly, and if not, they should be subject to the same penalties.”
Rosenthal added that the new law has a long-term benefit. Citing “a lot of law review articles,” she said there is often a direct line with someone who is cruel to animals at one stage in life later “being more damaging to people and property."
“People who strike out at animals,” she said, “often graduate to more serious crimes against people.”