Pet Talk: Does the time fit animal-abuse crime?

15 02 2011

Reaction was immediate and intense. When Samuel Walker was sentenced last week to 90 days in jail for felony animal abuse (plus probation, court costs and community service), animal lovers had plenty to say. Most wasn’t pretty.

Indira, who had no known name for the first eight years of her life, was part of a rescue of 99 dogs from a breeder in Colorado.

By Connie Miller
USA Today
Walker gained national notoriety two years ago after 99 sled dogs, most starving, many ailing, were rescued (several corpses of starved-to-death dogs also were found) from his Pawsatrak operation near Hartsel, Colo. The animals were distributed to several shelters for care and rehabilitation, a year-long process for some.
It was a painful chapter in this dog-loving state, and interest in Walker’s sentencing was huge.
“Not enough,” raged hundreds of people online and on radio call-in shows last week. But as long as Walker was to be confined (even if not nearly long enough), as his dogs had been (though under far better conditions), many suggested he receive the same treatment the dogs got — insufficient food and water, and no treatment if he gets ill or develops an abscessed tooth or cancer.
I had some personal interest in this case. I saw first-hand the condition of many of those dogs, ribs and hip bones protruding, weak and sickly, some so unaccustomed to human interaction they cowered when a hand was outstretched in friendship.
In fact, I fostered one for 10 months: an American Eskimo dog mix, probably 7 years old. She was rail thin when she arrived at the shelter where I volunteer, crippled, in horrid pain, unable to walk more than a few steps because her rear kneecaps had slipped when she was very young (according to the orthopedic vet who later examined her), causing ligaments to grow crosswise and her legs to become deformed and atrophied. Moreover, we later discovered, she had several rotten, infected teeth (extracted once she was healthy enough to survive surgery), some malformed teeth (the sign of desperate chewing, month after month, to escape confinement), as well as cancerous mammary tumors (removed, and the prognosis is excellent).
Somehow Indira, as the shelter named her, was able to recover from all this, build enough muscle through gradual exercise that she can walk again (though she’s still deformed), and believe in the good intentions of people. She was adopted by a wonderful couple determined to make up for the horrors of the first half of her life.
So let’s just say I can definitely understand the outrage people felt.
But was the Walker sentence out of line, contextually speaking?
I contacted Joyce Tischler, founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which monitors these kinds of matters.
She searched the database the ALDF keeps and shared sentencing details of some multiple-dog starvation cases, including these:
• Danielle Assante of Pike County, Pa., left her pets alone and without food for three weeks. A border collie, three pitbulls, three cats, a rabbit and a cockatiel were found dead after a neighbor called authorities; three severely emaciated dogs were still alive. Assante, a professional show-dog trainer, got 90 days in jail and a $600 fine.
• Dawn Postma of Kent County, Mich., was found guilty of four misdemeanor animal cruelty charges after authorities found a dead German shepherd frozen to the ground and two live but emaciated dogs (euthanized because they were too weak to fight a virus). A fourth dog had been taken from her yard to the shelter by a delivery person alarmed at its condition. Postma was sentenced to 93 days in jail and two years of probation, during which she couldn’t own animals.
• Marion Key of Limestone County, Ala., pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor animal cruelty after authorities discovered the bodies of several dead greyhounds in cages, and four almost-dead dogs (one died on the way to the dog pound, a second the next day — both were one-third of normal body weight). His sentence: 90 days in jail, which was suspended; two years of probation, during which he couldn’t have animals; and $1,570.71 in restitution.
Tischler understands the outrage over the Walker plea-agreement sentence. She’s always cheered by public sentiment that could ultimately lead to stronger law.
Yet, the fact is, “in comparison to others,” Walker’s sentence is “not unreasonably mild,” and it had “some important elements,” she says.
Not only does it include jail time, but also it’s a felony conviction and all that implies. And the two-year probation is “supervised, not just the honor system, and that’s an important distinction,” she says.
Moreover, Walker’s prohibition from having more animals or engaging in animal-related business during probation “is also very important.”
There’s also, for the record, 48 hours of community service, $6,219.50 in court fines and an additional $6,224 in restitution (the latter left open by the judge, allowing Walker to appeal that figure).
Colorado is “in the top tier (No. 15) when we look at animal-protection laws that currently exist,” says Tischler. “We always want to see as many tools as possible on the state level.” And it appears that they were used reasonably in this case.
So now we know.
As for Walker, he was instantly remanded, so he’s already behind bars. Oh, and the judge granted Walker’s request that he be released briefly from jail to attend his daughter’s wedding.
No doubt a very proud moment for the bride.



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