Florida law contains no minimum jail sentences for cruelty to animals, a third-degree felony involving deliberate torment, torture or death such as that January 2004 case.But the rules may change. A new House bill sparked by multiple horse killings on the Gulf Coast would put first-time offenders behind bars for at least six months.
Animal-lovers love anti-abuse bill
In a Hillsborough County pasture, a pregnant Arabian horse named Snow Girl -- a beloved family pet -- suffered a sickening death.
Someone shot her, slit her throat with a knife, butchered her on the spot and stole hundreds of pounds of meat.
How do you place a value on an animal's life?
Florida law contains no minimum jail sentences for cruelty to animals, a third-degree felony involving deliberate torment, torture or death such as that January 2004 case.
But the rules may change. A new House bill sparked by multiple horse killings on the Gulf Coast would put first-time offenders behind bars for at least six months.
Such cases are rare in Brevard County. But since last year, Assistant State Attorney Wayne Holmes said eight suspects have been charged with cruelty to animals -- including a grisly December case where authorities stumbled upon decaying, caged carcasses and starving pets inside a feces-littered Melbourne apartment.
"That's why I want a tougher penalty. We need to get a message across to these people," said Rep. Faye Culp, R-Tampa, who introduced the cruelty bill after Snow Girl's death in her district. "I feel very strongly that something more needs to be done than what we have on the books right now."
House Bill 43 would punish offenders who intentionally torture or kill animals with a minimum six-month jail sentence and a $4,000 fine. Current Florida law prescribes a $2,500 fine with no mandatory jail time.
Second-time offenders would receive at least 10 months in jail and a $6,000 fine, up from today's six months and $5,000.
"Cruelty to animals is something that should not be tolerated in a civilized society," Holmes said. "There should be a punishment, and what the Legislature is doing is saying this should be the minimum sentence. Most people are very offended by situations where animals are mistreated."
The Pet-Abuse.com Web site lists 357 animal abuse cases in its Florida database, including a kitten shot with a crossbow in Tarpon Springs and a strangled black swan at Lake Eola in Orlando.
Holmes said offenders who abuse animals at a young age are more apt to commit physical, violent crimes later in life.
However, Brevard County Public Defender James Russo believes Culp's bill goes too far. Cruelty to animals is a terrible crime, he said. But judges already can send offenders to prison for up to five years.
"Essentially, what you have the Legislature saying is, 'We don't trust the judiciary to sentence appropriately,' " Russo said. "I think there are tools for judges to use without having the Legislature dictate to them what sentences to impose."
What's more, he said offenders would serve the proposed minimum six-month sentences in county jails -- not state-
Apartment of horrors
In December, Melbourne police entered the Wickham Road apartment after an underfed rottweiler leaped to freedom from a second-story window, alarming neighbors.
Inside was a ghastly scene, reports show. The rotting bodies of an Australian shepherd and a green-feathered parrot, locked in cages. They found a dead lizard and soft-shelled turtle. Feces and feathers were strewn everywhere.
Brevard County Animal Services officers seized the rottweiler and three surviving, malnourished animals: another Australian shepherd, a parrot and an albino python with its skin falling off. They were taken to local animal shelters.
Police arrested the tenant, Greg W. Hynes, 24, and charged him with eight counts of cruelty to animals. During questioning, police said Hynes admitted he withheld food to punish the animals for misbehavior.
Hynes' case has attracted the attention of animal-rights organizations and pet lovers across the country who network through e-mail and the Internet. Judge George Maxwell III received letters from as far as California and New Hampshire, asking him to impose a harsh penalty.
"It would be a miscarriage of justice to allow this man to get away with an easy sentence after causing the death of the animals in his care," wrote one man in Georgia.
Last week, about a dozen people attended a Viera court hearing, planning to lobby the judge to be tough on Hynes, who faces up to 40 years in prison -- five years on each count -- but no minimum jail sentence.
Public defender Patrick LePore said Hynes has no prior criminal record. He asked Maxwell to consider probation, community service, a psychological evaluation and a ban on future ownership of animals in lieu of time behind bars.
The animal-rights supporters did not get the chance to speak. Instead, Maxwell scheduled a Dec. 19 pretrial hearing, during which a plea may be entered.
Culp tried unsuccessfully to increase cruelty to animals penalties the past two years -- those bills never made it to the House floor for a formal vote. Her latest bill was assigned to the House agriculture committee last month.
The committee is chaired by Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach, whose district encompasses most of western Brevard County. He said House Bill 43 will likely hold hearings next month.
Poppell said he has not yet reviewed Culp's newest sentencing proposal, but he has reservations -- namely, the definition of cruelty is in the eye of the beholder.
"I'm a firm believer that if somebody is intentionally abusing an animal, we need to punish them. However, maybe sometimes it looks like it was intentional when it wasn't, and we'd have this maximum law on the books," Poppell said.
"I personally think what's on the books is adequate. But I'm not passing judgment on the bill now."
Port Richey resident Maria Colon hopes to turn her love of dogs into a full-time occupation. The Puerto Rican native sews and sells colorful canine clothing, including vests, bandanas, dresses and hats. She hawked her wares during Saturday's Cocoa Village Craft Fair with Skip, her tiny 4-month-old Chihuahua.
Colon devised her own sentence for animal abusers: Let people slap them senseless in the public square.
"This is my four-legged baby," she said, cradling Skip in her arms.
Among House Bill 43's supporters is Bob Brown, Brevard County Animal Services community outreach officer. His department, which responds to abuse scenes, issued 211 misdemeanor cruelty to animals charges during the past 12 months.
"Oftentimes, animal abuses are gateway crimes to people abuse and child abuse," Brown said. "If the animal abuse laws are taken more seriously, it'll have a trickle-up effect on the whole picture of things."
One such case involves Candy, an injured Maltese mix who was found on the porch of an abandoned Canaveral Groves home with no tags. She is blind in one eye and has partial vision in the other, and she suffers from epilepsy.
"She was malnourished and covered with matted hair. We had to shave her," said Theresa Clifton, executive director of the Central Brevard Humane Society in Cocoa. "She was covered in fleas and other fecal matter.
"To be a little blind dog walking out in the street, it's pretty sad. Because she could have been hit by a car."
Candy has recuperated at the shelter and awaits adoption.
Rockledge resident Denise Brooker now owns Pepsi, the sickly Australian Shepherd rescued from Hynes' apartment. The malnourished dog was down to 21 pounds -- she now weighs 42 pounds -- and was mentally traumatized, she said.
Sgt. Corky Ferrante was the county animal services investigator who helped Pepsi to safety. "She could barely stand. She was wobbling," Ferrante recalled. "She was lucky to make it."
Brooker adopted the pooch in March from the South Brevard Animal Care and Adoption Center and promptly renamed her Gidget.
"She was near death and she couldn't get up off the floor, and they had to carry her out (of the apartment). Today, this dog has so much energy," Brooker said. "I run four miles a day with this dog just to wear her out. She's a wonderful dog.
"She's still a little skittish sometimes. But she's working through it."