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Bella's Law would strengthen NYS penalties for animal abuse

Animal Legal Defense Fund

New York is one of only 13 states where animal cruelty laws are not part of the penal code. That would change under a bill being considered in the state legislature.

Bella's law is named for a German Shepard mix whose owner placed zip ties around the dog's neck, shoved her into a garbage bag and beat her with a shovel. Her injuries were so severe, Bella had to be euthanized.

Michael Gallagher, of Levittown on Long Island, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four months in county jail for the crime in Novermber 2017.

"If he had taken that same shovel to his neighbor's car, he could have had more time in state prison than he had in jail under the law as it currently is,” said Lindsay Larris, senior staff attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “I think most New Yorkers would not find that to be an adequate punishment for the crime."

In New York, animal abuse and cruelty laws are part of the Agriculture and Markets section of the law. Larris said moving them into the state's penal code would signify that they are crimes that the state takes seriously.

"Symbolically, the way it is now under Ag and Markets code, they're basically treating crimes against animals as crimes of property,” she said. “Like if I steal your bale of hay; that's what something in that sort of code section looks like."

The New York Farm Bureau disagrees. Spokesman for the bureau, Steve Ammerman, said strengthening penalties for the abuse or mistreatment of animals is a separate issue from where those crimes fall in the state's legal code.

"Certainly, New York Farm Bureau does not advocate, nor would any farmer advocate for any mistreatment of farm animals,” Ammerman said. “It's a matter of understanding the law, knowing where the law is and educating law enforcement about how to enforce the law. That can happen under Ag and Markets law, and that's where we think it should stay."

Ammerman said current Agriculture and Markets law allows a veterinarian who understands farm practices to offer their perspective and protect farmers from unfounded accusations of animal abuse. For example, he said some well-meaning animal rights activists have accused farmers of mistreating livestock because they do not understand the standard practice of insemination.

"We've seen words like 'rape' used targeting farmers - things that are so far out of the norm and so misleading and so accusatory - but, at the same time, it's a standard practice and for someone who may not realize or understand that, they may make accusations of animal cruelty."                 

There may not be time in the current New York State legislative session for Bella's law to make it out of the codes committee, where it is now, to the floor for a vote.

Larris said there is another factor that may sway lawmakers to support the measure, now or later: the increasing awareness of the link between violence against animals and violence against people.

"Which has prompted a lot more district attorneys and police officers to think about these crimes in a different sense," Larris said. "It's not sort of a one-off, you ended up abusing an animal. It can represent a pathology that we should be looking at more seriously."

Bella's law would increase aggravated animal cruelty to a class D felony, which carries a maximum sentence of 2-7 years.

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