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DISTURBING Animal cruelty cases show need for stiffer penalties

A week ago a Paducah man pleaded guilty to hanging his dog from a tree in the backyard of his home on Sixth Street. County animal control officers, acting on a tip, searched Kenneth Boyd's property on March 24. They discovered Boyd's pit bull mix buried in the yard and found a collar with an extension cord tied to it in a building on the property. Boyd pleaded guilty during a court appearance last week to misdemeanor second-degree animal cruelty, the worst offense he could be charged with under Kentucky law, and received a one-year sentence.

Sunday The Paducah Sun carried a similarly disturbing story about a Tennessee man who was sentenced to one year and four months in prison for killing a puppy by putting it in a dishwasher, turning it on and leaving the dog to die. At least in Tennessee that offense is a felony, although again the sentence seems too light.

We recite those episodes to note this: Kentucky's animal cruelty laws are some of the most lenient in the nation. The Humane Society of the United States ranks Kentucky 43rd in the nation when it comes to the strength of its animal protection laws. The Animal Legal Defense Fund has gone farther, ranking Kentucky worst in the nation in its 2013 annual report.

There was a move afoot during the 2014 legislative session to strengthen Kentucky's animal cruelty laws. In fact, there was legislation introduced the session prior as well. But both times the measure remained bottled up in committee, in part due to sportsmen who - with good reason - regard some of the animal rights groups backing the measure with suspicion.

State Rep. Will Coursey, a Benton Democrat, sponsored this year's legislation to toughen cruelty laws. It was introduced in the House Feb. 19, assigned to the House Judiciary Committee the next day, and has not been heard from since. Among other steps, the measure would classify as torture a failure to provide an animal with minimum care such that a serious injury results. It would also give animal control officers power to take custody of an animal if an officer felt the animal was in imminent danger.

Coursey is philosophical about the difficulty getting action on his bill. "Often times it takes a little time for good legislation to make it through the process," he says.

He says it continues to be a chore to build a comfort level with the bill among such diverse groups as the League of Sportsmen, the Kentucky Houndsmen Association, and animal rights groups. He says while virtually every animal abuse law in Kentucky has provisions protecting hunting activities and groups, it is still difficult to get hunters and other activists on the same page.

That is understandable. Some of the more aggressive animal rights groups have taken to attempting to disrupt hunts and hunters in the field, sought to ban fishing as cruel, and resorted to other overzealous tactics. In so doing they have undercut their own cause by generating enmity among people who generally share an interest in animal welfare and wildlife resource preservation.

Clearly, making it more than a misdemeanor in Kentucky to criminally neglect, abuse, torture or kill domestic animals is a worthy effort and action is overdue. Stronger penalties are appropriate and necessary. But as always the devil is in the details.

It stands to reason that acceptable language can be found to toughen animal cruelty laws while protecting the legitimate interests of sportsmen. We commend Rep. Coursey for his efforts in this regard and encourage him to stay the course.

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