Fairfield cruelty law not updated for 11 years

WINNSBORO – It’s perfectly legal to abandon hunting dogs in South Carolina.

It’s also technically legal to kill a dog when it is threatening or causing personal property damage.

And perhaps most troubling to animal rights advocates, state law doesn’t automatically ban convicted animal abusers from owning pets in the future.

These deficiencies and others in state and local laws help explain South Carolina’s poor ratings in a pair of national reports that rate how well the state regulates animal cruelty.

Two reports – one by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the other by the Humane Society of the United States – rank South Carolina in the bottom tier when it comes to protecting pets.

Deborah Richelle, former president of the Hoof and Paw Benevolent Society, a Blythewood-based organization that has been lobbying for stronger animal abuse laws, isn’t surprised.

“We’ve been trying locally for the past four years to get something done about their ordinance, because it is so antiquated,” Richelle said.

It’s been nearly 11 years since Fairfield County last updated its animal control laws, according to the Fairfield County government website.

The animal cruelty and abandonment provisions are codified in Ordinance 321, the website states. Enacted in October 2007, the law essentially mirrors state law at the time.

Animal cruelty provisions are limited to two paragraphs. Four more paragraphs are devoted to animal abandonment.

For years, Hoof and Paw have been lobbying Fairfield County to update the 2007 law, and are currently working to draft a new one.

In June, the county presented an early draft of a revised ordinance to the Town of Winnsboro, which dismissed it as excessive. Progress since then has slowed.

Three months later, the ordinance still hasn’t received a vote

Council Chairman Billy Smith said his preference remains with increasing enforcement, not legislation, though he does hope some revisions can receive a council vote sometime this fall.

“I think law enforcement is doing their job,” Smith said. “I just don’t think the follow through has occurred on the prosecutorial level.”

Smith added that he’s open to toughening laws relating to tethering of animals, but doesn’t support automatic bans on pet ownership for offenders. Nor does he support granting civil immunity to veterinarians who report suspected animal abuse.

Advocates look to Aiken

As Fairfield County continues working on its animal control ordinance, Hoof and Paw representatives think the county needs better laws, pointing to communities such as Rock Hill and Aiken as examples.

Both cities have revamped their animal cruelty laws. Aiken most recently adopted new standards relating to tethering in March, said Tim O’Briant, city spokesman.

Aiken’s ordinance says animals can only be tethered for a maximum of 13 hours. The tethering cap shrinks to 15 minutes during severe weather.

The law also includes new regulations regarding animals locked inside motor vehicles during extreme heat or cold.

“This was added to provide more definable criteria for our Public Safety to have when addressing these situations,” Aiken City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh said in a memo.

Kathy Faulk, community outreach director for Hoof and Paw, and a Fairfield County resident, thinks the county should adopt similar regulations, but expressed concern about slow progress.

“I’ve begun to feel this has landed on deaf ears,” Faulk said. “The sheriff is doing better about bringing charges, but it gets to the solicitor’s office and it’s pled.”

Recently, Hoof and Paw adopted a list of bullet points it thinks should be incorporated into any revised ordinance.

Leading the list are tighter restrictions on tethering. Hoof and Paw recommends capping tethering to four hours, which is shorter than the City of Aiken limit, but also matches Aiken County’s law.

Other wish list items include:

  • Require all dogs and cats to have proof of rabies vaccination and be registered with the county.
  • Greater punishment for animal abuse and neglect
  • Law enforcement and solicitors need to be committed to punishing animal abusers appropriately.

Richelle, the former Hoof and Paw president, said in the end there must be accountability for offenders.

“If you know somebody and you’ve done something bad to an animal, nine times out of 10 you can get out of it,” she said.

Chicken and the egg

Another reason for the state’s weak animal cruelty laws boils down to ownership of the issue.

State lawmakers often punt animal cruelty legislation to local governments, viewing the issue as a local matter.

But local leaders, including Smith, the Fairfield County chairman, think the state should take the lead.

“I’m trying to take a step forward, but not necessarily a leap or jump,” Smith said. “That would be my preference.”

Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, who’s previously filed bills to strengthen animal cruelty laws, said some lawmakers are adamantly opposed to stricter regulations of any kind, including an anti-tethering bill that died in the last session.

Other legislators, he said, hunt in their private time and view hunting dogs as property instead of companions.

“They come at it from a different perspective than those who own dogs as pets,” Taylor said. “They tend to look at things differently.”

“I don’t know the exact source of all the problems with that [tethering] bill, but there were clearly people who didn’t want it to move forward,” Taylor added. “There were people in leadership positions who wanted that bill derailed.”

Richelle agreed.

“They just don’t pay attention to us,” she said. “It’s like ‘this is what grandpa did, so we’ll keep doing what grandpa did.’”

South Carolina’s deference to hunting is evident in the state’s existing animal abandonment law.

Animal abandonment carries a fine of $200 to $500 and up to 30 days in prison. Fairfield County’s ordinance stipulates that cases must be tried in magistrate court.

The penalty for animal abandonment doesn’t apply to owners of hunting dogs, however. Hunting dogs are specifically exempt from the statute, which says animals should be provided with adequate food, water and shelter.

Weak laws and loopholes

South Carolina cruelty falls under Section 47 of state law and includes three basic offenses – ill treatment of animals (misdemeanor), ill treatment of animals (felony) and animal abandonment.

But lines are blurred between what distinguishes felonies and misdemeanors.

Generally speaking, animal cruelty cases resulting in death qualify as felonies. Torture, mutilation or inflicting “unnecessary pain or suffering” are additional conditions listed in the law for felony charges.

The misdemeanor ill treatment charge is more vague, merely stating that anyone who “overloads, overdrives, overworks, or ill-treats an animal, deprives an animal of necessary sustenance or shelter, or inflicts unnecessary pain or suffering” is guilty of a misdemeanor.

A felony conviction carries up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, though virtually none of the Fairfield County cases reviewed by The Voice since at least 2013 have resulted in the maximum penalty.

The last known case regionally when a defendant received the maximum penalty was in December 2017, when a Columbia man was convicted of setting a dog on fire in Richland County.

More loopholes and ambiguities exist elsewhere in state law.

For example, killing a dog that’s identifiable carries a fine of $500 to $1,000 and between 30 days and six month in prison.

It’s a stronger penalty than the misdemeanor ill treatment of animals charge, but weaker than the felony.

Penalties, however, don’t apply “to the killing of a dog threatening to cause or causing personal injury or property damage,” the law states.

S.C. ranks low in reports

The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s 2017 report ranked South Carolina 39th among 56 states and U.S. territories surveyed, placing the state in the bottom tier.

South Carolina ranked 38th in 2016.

“ALDF’s goals in these ongoing reviews are to continue to shed light on the important issue of animal protection, to compare and contrast the differences and similarities in these jurisdictions and to garner support for strengthening and enforcing animal protection laws throughout this country,” the report states.

In a separate report by the Humane Society of the United States, South Carolina ranked tied for 43rd with Wyoming, placing both states just outside the bottom five states.

The Humane Society report did note that in 2017, South Carolina “severely restricted the keeping of big cats, bears, and great apes.” Otherwise, the state’s ranking could have been even lower.

South Carolina’s lackluster showings are consistent with findings of an investigation by The Voice, which found that virtually none of the 15 cases prosecuted since 2015 ended in jail time for offenders.

Most cases were either plea bargained, resulting in probation, or dismissed outright, court records show.

“Perpetrators of the most unthinkable violence against animals deserve more than a slap on the wrist,” Lora Dunn, director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, stated in a news release. “Sadly, many cruelty cases go undetected, hidden from view.”

Building better laws

So what traits exist in strict animal cruelty laws?

The top five states – Illinois, Oregon, California, Maine and Rhode Island – generally ranked high in the following categories identified by the Animal Legal Defense Fund:

  • Adequate definitions/standards of basic care
  • Increased penalties for repeat offenders
  • Courts may order forfeiture of abused animals
  • Mandatory forfeiture of animals upon conviction
  • Mandatory reporting of suspected cruelty by veterinarians
  • Mental health evaluations/counseling for offenders
  • Broad range of felonies for abandonment, neglect and abuse.

States that ranked poorly lacked many of these protections.

Kentucky, which finished dead last in the report, actually prohibits veterinarians from reporting suspected animal abuse.

Most low ranking states do not mandate the surrender of abused animals, and penalties do not increase for repeat offenders.

South Carolina does give veterinarians immunity from civil litigation when they provide emergency care to an abused animal. But state law does not grant civil immunity for reporting cases of abuse.

The state also doesn’t require convicted animal abusers to surrender their animals, though judges can set that condition. And they have.

In sentencing Billy Ray Huskey, 51, of Great Falls, for dragging a dog with his pickup truck in July 2016, Circuit Judge Brian Gibbons banned Huskey from owning a dog during his probation period.

A year later, Judge Gibbons issued a similar order against Christopher Pauley of Ridgeway, who was charged with torturing and killing a cat. He was sentenced to 90 days, suspended to three years probation.

Comments

  1. sa bishop-carter says

    THIS IS EGREGIOUS AT BEST AND TOTALLY DESPICABLE AT WORST. ITS MORE THAN TIME TO STAND UP AND GET THE LAWS CHANGED THAT WILL PROTECT THE MOST HELPLESS OF ALL NOT ONLY IN THIS COUNTY BUT COUNTRY. IF OFFICIALS CANNOT SEE THAT ANIMAL CRUELTY IS JUST THE FIRST STAGE AND STEP TO THOSE WHO WILL DO GREATER HARM TO HUMANS NEXT. DO SOMETHING!

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