4:56pm

Mon December 26, 2011
The Commonwealth

Kentucky Leads for Best Place to Abuse Animals

Once again, Kentucky is leading the pack in one annual ranking. However, the ranking is an ignominious one as, for the fifth straight year, the Animal Legal Defense Fund has named Kentucky the best state in the nation to be an animal abuser. The rankings are compiled following a study of laws around the nation designed to protect animals and punish convicted animal abusers.

"It's very discouraging," said Milt Toby, a Scott County Humane Society board member and an attorney who lends his services to the group. "Kentucky has been at the bottom for the last five years. It clearly suggests we're not going in the right direction.
"I think it is embarrassing for Kentucky, which claims to be the Horse Capital of the World, to be at the bottom of the list."

However, Scott County's state legislators say the issues which led to the ranking likely won't be fixed during the upcoming General Assembly.

"We've got some very important issues on our plates this legislative session," said Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown. "I'm not really too concerned with what the national humane society and some of these extreme groups say. Every year these groups come out with these press releases to embarrass us into doing something. There's just not a lot of time to deal with these issues."

Not only will the state legislature's time be crunched during a session when they are charged with redistricting and crafting a budget, Rep. Ryan Quarles, R-Georgetown, said, there is also opposition to strengthening animal cruelty laws.

"I do hear about it from constituents, but I also hear about it from the farm community," Quarles said. "There is great caution among the agriculture community, of which I am a part, that there would be a commingling of animal cruelty laws which would unintentionally harm the agriculture community."

The General Assembly convenes in Frankfort Jan. 3. The legislature must agree on new maps for Congressional, state Senate and state House district maps. The politically-charged process occurs every 10 years on the heels of the U.S. Census.
Lawmakers must also agree on a two-year budget.

"I'm concerned about animal cruelty in Kentucky," Quarles said, "but the General Assembly's priority this next session will be to develop a budget during what has been described as the most challenging budget session ever in this state."

Toby himself said he was not optimistic the legislature would take steps to improve Kentucky's ranking on the Animal Legal Defense Fund list.

"Every year there are attempts to introduce bills which would stiffen Kentucky's laws," he said. "And they never seem to go anywhere. There's no reason to think it will change this year."

Toby suggested the legislature is failing to make the laws against animal abuse tougher or the penalties stiffer, not because of their workload, but because it's not a popular move with some of their constituents.

"We have time to do things like make the Corvette the Kentucky State Car or make Newgrass, whatever that is, Kentucky's state music.

"The easy answer is to say the legislature mirrors the public's lack of caring. I don't think that's true."

Thayer and the report itself did note that Kentucky was one of six states to strengthen its existing felony animal cruelty laws.
"I think these were important and I think they were difficult because there are legislators from different regions of the state who oppose strengthening these laws," Thayer said.

In 2008, a law made torturing a dog or cat and causing serious injury a felony on the first offense. Previously it was only a felony on the second offense.

The laws have been in the news again recently after a Henry County couple was charged with 218 counts of animal cruelty. KSP said this week that 71-year-old Kenneth Smith of Campbellsburg shot himself just days after their arraignment.

His wife, Terri Smith, still faces charges, however, nearly all are misdemeanors, despite the high number of charges.

Toby says the law also fails to protect horses from abuse with no felony provision on first-offenses.

"You can abuse a horse as much as you possibly can," he said, "and it's still not going to be a felony."

The report says Kentucky's deficiencies include a lack of felony charges for neglect and abuse, protections which apply only to certain types of animals, no mental health evaluation or counseling for offenders, no forfeiture of abused animals, no restriction of future ownership or possession after a conviction, no statutory authority to allow protective orders to include animals and no separate crime for the sexual abuse of an animal.

The report also mentions a 2008 law to make communication between veterinarians and their clients confidential, which had the unintended consequence of prohibiting the doctors from reporting animal cruelty.

But despite the report and the efforts of activists like Toby, leaders say Kentucky's animal cruelty laws aren't likely to be strengthened soon.

"Kentucky has taken significant steps in recent years to strengthen laws," Thayer said. "There doesn't seem to be a great deal of support at this time to take it any further."