FOX 13 viewers questioned the strength of laws pertaining to animal protection following the death of a dog in a Rock Springs, Wyoming animal cruelty case that is still in the courts. In that case, a 20-year-old woman was cited for animal cruelty after two dogs were located malnourished and on the verge of death.
She is currently awaiting sentencing in municipal courts for a misdemeanor charge, despite the death of one of the dogs. Social media posts are questioning the strength of punishment after photos surfaced of the dogs' condition.
"Felony animal cruelty is a tough thing to prove," said Wyoming State Representative Daniel Zwonitzer, who passed legislation in 2019 regarding aggravated cruelty and potential felony punishment. "We at least now have that provision where if a prosecutor wants to put that forward and a jury wants to convict, you can allow for a felony-level offense even if the animal doesn't die." The instance in Rock Springs potentially doesn't meet those criteria.
"To prove aggravated cruelty of an animal you're talking the level of maybe multiple animals, cruelty, dog fighting, fowl fighting, something where you can prove torture, mane, permanent injury to that animal, broken bones, loss of limbs or eyes," said Rep. Zwonitzer to FOX 13 in an interview Wednesday. "It's much more difficult to prove neglect or starvation than it is to prove broken bones, beating, torture, that kind of thing when it comes to animal law."
The provision went into effect in Wyoming on July 1, 2019. Zwonitzer says that it's already been used in various cases but hasn't formally been charged against an individual.
"We still have a long ways to go but we're making short steps and hopefully we've made some incremental change we had six major cases throughout Wyoming so far this year where we've now had this aggravated felony-level animal cruelty charge at least been levied against an individual," said Zwonitzer. "As long as I've been in the legislature, Wyoming has been in the bottom five for animal cruelty laws my hope is that we at least have earned the bottom 15 now after last years bill but certainly compared to other states we do not have the same protections for animals, especially domestic companion animals that other states do, like Utah."
Despite that strong push, Wyoming ranks 46th out of 50 in the Animal Legal Defense Fund's ranking, which cites numerous negatives in the state's laws pertaining to animal representation.
"This is the furthest we've got in 10 years of me pushing similar legislation to help protect especially domesticated animals," said Zwonitzer, who noted the lengthy court process for animal abuse cases. "I'm happy certainly we've gotten further than we have before in our state we still have a long ways to go especially when it comes to what a penalty should be."
The State of Utah ranks 43rd out of 50 in the rankings, which cite a lack of felony provisions, an ag-gag law, and no provision for pre-conviction restitution or forfeiture of cruelly treated animals.
"We are one of the worst states in the country for animal protection," says Humane Society of Utah's Advocacy Director Rachel Heatley, who hopes to implement inter-agency reporting for both human and animal cases in the future. "It's really difficult to enforce anti-cruelty provisions when it takes 30 minutes to get to a call for an animal control agent, we have very few agents and a large amount of space for them to cover."
Both Wyoming and Utah have no pending bills approaching the 2020 legislative sessions regarding animal cruelty and the potential for any punishment adjustment.
"We've grown an awful lot in the way we look at animals," said Utah Senator Gene Davis, who has sponsored a number of animal-related legislation over his 35-year career on Utah's Capitol Hill. "I think we've got a good penalty system, the thing is defining what we mean by it so the public knows how to take care of an animal."
Davis sponsored 'Henry's Law', which was adopted in 2008 to strengthen animal abuse laws following the torture of a cat named Sage.
"One of the things that we do have in statute in the state of Utah is that neglect and starving an animal to death is against the law, that is cruelty," said Sen. Davis.