Bill makes animal neglect a felony
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Bill makes animal neglect a felony

Seattle Times | April 25, 2005
By Ashley Bach

When Susan Michaels was trying to persuade state legislators to support her animal-neglect bill this year, she showed them photos of emaciated dogs that had been left in a Snohomish County shed for four years with little food and almost no human contact.

The pitch was effective. The state Legislature last week unanimously passed a bill making animal neglect a felony instead of a misdemeanor. If the bill is signed by the governor, neglectful pet owners will face as much as a year in jail instead of just a fine and a few years' probation.

"When you see animals starved or dehydrated or suffocated, they die a much more horrible death than an animal who's clubbed over the head or shot," said Michaels, co-founder of Pasado's Safe Haven, an animal-rescue organization that operates an animal sanctuary in Snohomish County.

"Finally we have a law we can use," she added, "and you can trust me, we're going to go after these people."

The law was inspired by the dozens of neglect cases that Pasado's sees each year, particularly a case in Bellevue last summer. Joyce Hunstad, 57, was arrested in July on suspicion of letting her eight cats and dog die in a flea-infested, trashed condo where she rarely lived, police said.

Hunstad pleaded guilty to four counts of misdemeanor neglect and will be sentenced May 3, said Bellevue police spokesman Michael Chiu.

County prosecutors say they were powerless to charge her with a more-serious crime. To prove felony animal cruelty, they would have had to show she intentionally hurt an animal or intentionally killed it "by a means causing undue suffering."

With the new law, suspects also will be guilty of a felony if they act with "criminal negligence" to starve, dehydrate or suffocate an animal and "cause considerable suffering or death."

Animal-neglect cases are rare, but police and prosecutors will devote more time to potential felonies. "You're going to get a lot more attention," said Dan Satterberg, chief of staff for the King County Prosecutor's Office, who lobbied for the bill.

The bill was written in December with the help of King County prosecutors. Then Michaels sent copies to people who might oppose it, such as chicken and dairy farmers. They didn't have any objections, probably because the bill still allows for traditional farming practices, Michaels said.

Then Michaels went to work on lawmakers. She was "relentless" and her work was the key factor in the bill's passage, said Sen. Luke Esser, R-Bellevue, a sponsor.

This wasn't the first time that Pasado's Safe Haven had an impact on the Legislature. In 1994, the group was instrumental in persuading lawmakers to change animal cruelty from a misdemeanor to a felony.

The Sultan-based group was formed in 1992 after a petting-zoo donkey in Bellevue named Pasado was beaten and tortured by three young men. The three faced only misdemeanor charges.

The animal-neglect bill is expected to be signed by Gov. Christine Gregoire and would take effect later this year.


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