DES MOINES --- A hunting dog trainer in Pottawattamie County pleaded guilty to 12 counts of animal negligence after authorities found four animals dead and at least three dozen malnourished dogs at the trainer’s kennel.
More than 150 animals were seized from a north Iowa woman who was charged with 17 counts of animal neglect.
These recent, high-profile cases are providing some momentum to proposals from state lawmakers to strengthen Iowa’s animal protection laws, which are among the weakest in the nation, according to animal welfare advocacy organizations.
Iowa’s protection laws ranked 48th in the country in 2018, according to analysis of state laws by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which advocates for strong animal protection laws and assists attorneys who prosecute animal abusers. Iowa is low in the rankings in part because the state has no felony for first offense of animal cruelty and no clear legal definition of basic standards of care for animals.
Some state lawmakers are working this year to change that.
Multiple proposals have been introduced at the Iowa Capitol, and some are working their way through the legislative process. It remains to be seen whether there is sufficient support among all state lawmakers to pass any of the proposals into law.
Some of the proposals address animal cruelty in broad terms, while another attempts to address so-called puppy mills --- large volume dog breeders that do not sufficiently care for their dogs.
One proposal that addresses animal cruelty laws and punishments this past week was unanimously approved by the Iowa House, 96-0.
“I’m not one to champion simply increasing criminal sanctions for no good reason, but in this case after spending a lot of time with our current (law) and talking to animal rights advocates, I would have to agree that our current criminal sanctions for animal neglect, abuse and torture are too low,” said Mary Wolfe, a Democratic state representative from Clinton and an attorney.
“I think the increases made in this bill make sense, they’re reasonable, and will in fact provide law enforcement and judges with a better tool to help both rehabilitate people convicted of these crimes and also perhaps provide a little bit of deterrence.”
That proposal, House File 737, would add felony as a first offense in cases of animal torture, remove language that currently makes it difficult for law enforcement to charge individuals with torture, and allows judges to order a psychiatric evaluation for someone convicted of torture.
Current law requires proof of “sadist” or “depraved” intent in order to convict an individual of animal torture. Animal welfare advocates say that creates an unfairly high bar for conviction.
That requirement would be removed under the proposal approved by the Iowa House.
And the option for a judge to order a psychiatric evaluation in a torture conviction is necessary to protect not only animals but humans, said Bobby Kaufmann, a state representative from Wilton who pointed to studies that have shown links to individuals who torture animals and later in life commit violent crimes against humans.
“If you’ve got the predisposition to torture a puppy or a kitten, you’re probably going to graduate to humans,” Kaufmann said. “Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also (could stop) future attacks on people.”
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In the past, lawmakers have been hesitant to strengthen the state’s animal cruelty laws primarily due to concerns raised by farmers and organizations that represent them. They raised the concern that any attempt to strengthen animal cruelty laws could create burdensome regulations on livestock farmers.
Lawmakers say they have addressed those concerns in the current proposals by writing the legislation to specifically address pets, or their legal term, companion animals. And the proposals would amend a portion of state law that is different from the one that deals with livestock.
Dog breeders also express concerns that strengthened animal cruelty laws could be harmful to their businesses if not carefully considered, written and enforced.
Lawmakers said they worked with all stakeholders to draft a proposal with which all parties would be comfortable.
That effort may have paid off. Organizations that want to offer their perspective on legislative proposals can register with a state registry, and on the proposal that passed the House there is no organization registered in opposition.
“I think what’s been very encouraging is for the first time that I’ve ever been here, both the agriculture community, the dog breeders as well as the animal rescue people have come together in regard to some agreement,” said Brad Zaun, a Republican state senator from Urbandale. “That’s really, really encouraging.”
Zaun has his own proposal working its way through the legislative process, Senate File 369, as does a bill written by Republican state senators Tom Shipley of Nodaway and Dan Dawson of Council Bluffs. The latter, Senate File 57, is not as strong; animal welfare advocates prefer Zaun’s proposal or the one that passed the House.
With multiple proposals moving, lawmakers must reach a consensus on which proposal is best that can also receive enough votes to get it approved and sent to Gov. Kim Reynolds for her consideration.
“It’s my intention and I’m very hopeful that we will get something through,” Zaun said. “We’ve got to get something done to go from (48th) and move our way up.”
A separate proposal would deal specifically with puppy mills by setting legal baselines for standards of care.
That proposal creates regulations for dog breeders --- including that they provide for all their dogs adequate water, space to move, and other requirements --- requires the state ag department to perform an annual inspection of each licensed breeder, and increases penalties for some violations, among other provisions.
Kaufmann said he hopes dog breeders work with him on the legislation so they can support it.
“I freely tell you and anybody else that 95 percent of dog breeders are doing great work. So I’ve told them if there are problems with the bill, come to me because the goal of this whole thing is to root out the 5 percent,” Kaufmann said. “The 5 percent, the bad actors that give the good actors a bad name need to be put out of business.”
The puppy mill bill, House File 738, does not have as much legislative momentum as the animal cruelty bill; no action has yet been taken on it.
“Something’s got to happen, whether it’s this year or next year, or two years from now,” Kaufmann said. “It’d like everybody to come to a consensus and get it done this year while we have a live round.”