The seizure of 250 abused and neglected animals on property in Johnston last September drew extensive media coverage and public dismay.
Many other such incidents also occur, but may not get as much attention.
Following conversations with officials from the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare and others, S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, introduced House Bill 3392 Wednesday that would increase penalties for animal abuse. Current penalties are far too minimal, he said.
“South Carolina is ranked 48th in state animal protection laws in the annual survey by the Humane Society of the United States,” Taylor said in a press release. “Surely we can do better in protecting animals from abuse by stiffening the criminal penalties.”
Serious animal abuse, neglect and torture violations would result in felony offenses. First offenders would be charged with misdemeanors, but would still be subject to jail time and fines that would escalate on repeated offenses, according to the bill.
Here’s the problem, said David Miller, assistant solicitor for the 2nd Judicial Circuit. The sentences are up to 30 days or $1,000. The cases come into the magistrate courts that don’t have the ability to put someone on probation or have people supervised for extended periods.
“They’re guilty, but when they walk out of court, that’s the end of it,” Miller said. “It doesn’t make sense realistically for the magistrate not to have some ability to order some kind of oversight or review of these cases.”
Without such oversight, people who abused animals in a “puppy mill” can simply move on to another jurisdiction and start over selling them to purchasers unaware of the animals’ conditions, he said.
In other situations, Miller said, some people may have psychological issues that cause them to hoard animals. General Sessions Court could impose specific provisions that such a person would have to abide by. In that way, that person could get the resources he would need, then getting on probation and not having to go to prison.
The Johnston incident was just a nightmare for the Aiken shelter and others nationally working to help the animals, said Gary Willoughby, executive director of the Aiken SPCA. He and other officials with the organization met with Taylor about the legislation.
“We took in over 40 of the dogs,” Willoughby said. “A lot of them needed treatment, and many that had been neglected were shy and needed attention. We were able to adopt out almost all of them.”
Successful legislation would give animal control officers laws they can enforce, Willoughby said.
The proposed legislative measure would not affect breeders and kennel owners in terms of inspections, Miller and Taylor said.
“There won’t be any impact on families with two dogs and one dog gets through a fence,” Miller said. “It doesn’t apply to Fido getting lost.”
Taylor’s bill has been transferred to the House Judiciary Committee for hearings.