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Animal cruelty laws do little to stop owners from abusing again

Megan Hix

By Megan Hix
Dec. 31, 2017 at 11:12 p.m.

Executive director Richard Fincher inspects horses after they were delivered Friday from Louisiana to Safe Haven Equine Rescue and Retirement Home. Fincher is executive director of the rescue organization.

In February 2016, Fonzie, a 9-year-old horse from Gladewater, was 250 pounds underweight, anemic and plagued with internal parasites and a fungus along his spine.

Gladewater Animal Control rescued Fonzie, along with eight other horses, from a small pen where they were held together without hay or clean water. One of the horses kept with Fonzie was so malnourished it had to be euthanized after the rescue.

Animal control officers brought Fonzie and the rest of the horses to Safe Haven Equine Rescue and Retirement Home in Gilmer, where Executive Director Richard Fincher and volunteers nursed the horses back to health.

Safe Haven rates horses from one to nine when they first arrive. Fonzie was a two.

"We could see his spine, his shoulder blades, his hips," Fincher said.

But within four months of care, veterinary visits and dental work, Fonzie was adopted. Today, he and his new owner compete together in Special Olympics rodeo events.

"He came back really quick," Fincher said.

Fonzie's previous owners, Alisha Rae Duvall, 35, and husband Ronnie Arthur Knox, 32, both of Longview, were arrested in April 2016 on Upshur County charges related to the incident. Jail records show that Duvall had been charged in Gregg County with six counts of animal cruelty since 2005.

Animal cruelty investigations can offer second chances to mistreated animals that are removed from homes where they are deprived of food and water or physically abused. The owners who are convicted often receive fines, parole or jail time, depending on the animal involved and the offense, which can range from leaving a dog in a hot car to beating, starving or killing an animal. While repeat animal cruelty records to the extent of Duvall's are uncommon, authorities said, there are few legal tools to keep offenders from owning more pets or livestock in the future.

Lawyer Kelly Heitkamp, who works on animal welfare cases, said in an email that Texas laws have improved over the past 20 years, allowing more serious punishment for cruel owners.

"Sixteen years ago, there (were) no animal cruelty laws; therefore, a man who (turned) his lawnmower on his own puppy was charged with nothing more than a misdemeanor," Heitkamp wrote. "Today that man would face felony charges, including years in jail, possibly prison and significant fines."

A new state law enacted in September increased the range of punishments for animal cruelty to a maximum of 10 years in jail for someone convicted, or 20 years for a repeat offender.

Still, without a database or mandatory screenings of potential pet buyers, the only way to legally prevent someone from owning animals is through conditions offered in a plea agreement when one of these cases is brought to court.

"Often the DA accepts a plea from those who commit cruelty or negligent acts against animals in exchange for an agreement the 'owner' will not possess animals for a specific number of years," Heitkamp wrote. "This is also a common form of sentencing when a case is tried before a judge."

Duvall had been prohibited from possessing any animals for one year after a 2009 case of animal cruelty involving two different horses and a pony, court records show. In 2006, Duvall was accused of "intentionally or knowingly" failing to feed and care for five cows and five horses. The case was dismissed, but the charges were taken into consideration in the sentencing of an unrelated charge.

Fincher said Safe Haven screens potential horse owners through applications, inspections and questions about the kind of care the animal will receive. Sometimes, he said, he even talks to the applicant's neighbors. The new owners also have to sign a contract not to sell or give the horse away to anyone else.

Fincher said none of these practices are universal or required by law, but they help ensure the new owner knows the work and money involved in caring for a horse.

More than 850 horses have come to Safe Haven through partnerships with sheriff's offices and other law enforcement agencies around the state., Fincher said. Sometimes the horses are seized through civil court, other times after the owners are arrested and charged with a criminal offense.

"We can't go out and pick up a horse," he said. "There has to be a warrant for the animals, but we like to see one for the people, too."

Longview Animal Services Supervisor Chris Kemper has worked in animal control and animal services for 12 years. He said the city animal shelter helps treat dogs and cats that have experienced some sort of abuse, including recent cases involving a dog shot with an arrow and a cat hit with a baseball bat.

But more often, the city sees misdemeanors and "negligent cruelty," where pets are not properly taken care of or are abandoned.

The shelter doesn't do a criminal background check on potential adoptees, he said, but it does reference Longview's animal control records for information on those individuals and refuse anyone who might have a history of neglect or cruelty.

Animal control works closely with police to investigate cruelty cases and tips from concerned community members. Kemper said it can be difficult to get a case prosecuted because animals can't communicate what happened and offenses often occur in the privacy of one's home.

"There are plenty of times you want to make a statement or show that there are consequences to actions… but they have to be weighed against the circumstances (of the case)," Kemper said. "Our end game is to save the animal. We hope that, whatever punishment the person gets, they don't find themselves in that position again."

Kemper said he believes people increasingly understand the seriousness of animal cruelty cases, as well as the links between animal cruelty and violence toward humans, and the community often rallies to protect animals in need.

Despite his shelter operating at capacity, Fincher said he believes cases often go unreported to authorities.

"People are scared to say anything because they don't want to offend the neighbor," he said. "If you drive by and see no vegetation, no hay and you're sure there's no clean water or you're starting to see their backbone and their hips, it's your responsibility to call in."

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