Utah once again ranks among the five worst states for its comparatively weak animal protection laws, the Animal Legal Defense Fund found in a report released this week.
The second annual report from the group last year listed Utah in the bottom five states. This year's worst included Arkansas, Alaska, Kentucky, North Dakota and Utah. The five best were California, Illinois, Maine, Michigan and Oregon.
"We are only one of seven states that don't have any felony provisions in state code for initial torture of an animal," said Gene Baierschmidt, director of the Utah Humane Society. "We're hopeful that we can come in line with other states that have passed stronger animal cruelty laws. We need to do something about that."
The Animal Legal Defense Fund's director of legislative affairs, Stephan Otto, said the lower rankings highlight states that are "plainly incapable of adequately protecting animals." Otto hopes Utah lawmakers will want to improve laws that protect animals.
The report examined 14 categories, including general prohibitions, penalties, exemptions and what happens to offenders in terms of mental health evaluations and counseling. Utah does not have a felony animal cruelty provision, and it has inadequate animal fighting provisions, the report says.
The most severe penalty in Utah for an animal cruelty conviction, considered a class-A misdemeanor, is up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
A last-minute bill brought before the 2007 Utah Legislature would have created tougher animal protection laws. The legislation passed the Senate but ran out of time in the House.
The intent of the bill sponsor, Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, was to identify certain acts of animal cruelty as felonies. A survey conducted last March by Dan Jones & Associates found that nearly three-fourths of 418 Utahns questioned were in favor of the bill, which would have spawned "Henry's Law."
The proposed law was named after a dog called Henry, whose owner, Rhonda Kamper, helped create the Web site, www.helpushelpthem.org. The site, which still exists, was dedicated to generating support for the bill following the extreme abuse of Kamper's dog by her former husband.
Davis said Utah has fallen behind most states on animal cruelty laws because of its conservative nature regarding efforts to change existing laws. Lawmakers tend to choose the more conservative "stay the course" approach. Still, he was surprised to hear about the low ranking in light of Utah's good record with animal husbandry.
Baierschmidt said he and others will need to focus on educating some legislators who are "nervous" that an animal cruelty bill will somehow negatively impact corporate farming or animal husbandry. "This bill has nothing to do with that," he said.
Last August lawmakers held a special session during which they discussed Henry's Law, but they could not agree on when animal torture rises to a felony. They promised a compromise on the issue in the 2008 session.
Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, also sponsored a bill last session that would have made animal torture a felony, but only on the second offense. Davis' bill sought a felony charge on the first offense.More recently the Humane Society of the United States threw national support behind efforts in Utah by sponsoring information meetings in St. George, Ogden and Salt Lake City for residents wondering how they might be able to influence change in the state's animal cruelty laws.