Cruelty to animals is now punishable as a Class E felony on the second offense in Tennessee as of July 15th, when the new law was signed into effect by Governor Don Sundquist.
The law, sponsored by state Senator Steve Cohen (D-Memphis), differs from the state's previous animal-cruelty laws in that it contains the felony provision. Previously, animal cruelty was only punishable as a Class A misdemeanor. Tennessee joins 33 other states and the District of Columbia in imposing felony-level penalties.
On the first offense, the Class A misdemeanor still applies, which is punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days of imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $2,500. Second-time offenders will be charged with a Class E felony, which can be punishable by imprisonment of one to six years. Subsequent violations will also result in Class E felonies.
"Animal cruelty may be a precursor to the torturing of people. Robert Friedman's alleged murderer supposedly stabbed and killed his dog," says Cohen, referring to the recent shooting of a prominent attorney in a downtown Memphis parking garage. "These are not harmless acts against a piece of property. Animals have feelings too."
Animal cruelty is defined as the depraved and sadistic torture or maiming of an animal and only applies to nonlivestock companion animals. It does, however, include animals commonly thought of as livestock, such as ducks or pot-bellied pigs, that are cared for as pets. The law does not affect lawful hunting, trapping, fishing, or butchering for food.
The bill has been held up in a House of Representatives agriculture committee for two years due to concerns that the law would be misapplied to farm animals. Opponents argued that some common farming practices, such as shoeing draft animals, could be considered animal cruelty. The committee had concerns about the possibility of farmers being charged with felonies.
The law does not apply to humane euthanasia of animals, accepted veterinary practices, bona fide scientific testing, dispatching of diseased animals, or use of animal-training methods and equipment.
"We're very pleased that serious animal abuse can now be treated as a serious crime. This kind of legislation is long overdue," says Donna Malone, vice president of Responsible Animal Owners of Tennessee. "One case we know of, in which a dog's head was allegedly cut off with a steak knife, was horrible. We found it truly tragic that there were no laws to address, much less punish, that level of abuse."