By David Palmer
The Cullman Times
Animals, particularly cats and dogs, have some protection under Alabama law. Nonetheless, most offenses against these animals are viewed as misdemeanors.
The recent case of a family’s pet being bound, beaten and repeatedly dropped off a bridge led to an outpouring of emotions from many area residents. While the young goat died horribly, according to Cullman County Sheriff’s Office reports that noted the existence of a video of the act, the incident was listed as misdemeanor cruelty to animals. The only felony charged was that the teens involved in the crime allegedly stole the goat.
The legal proceedings against the teens will remain cloaked because they are juveniles. The judge and attorneys in the case will be unable, by law, to report on the matter from this point forward.
Most of the crimes of animal abuse found in the area are committed against cats and dogs. Both the county and city have officers dedicated to answering calls involving animals.
The cost of a conviction may range from a few hundred dollars up $3,000. Incarceration is not common for those convicted of animal cruelty, but can amount to up to six months in the county detention center.
While animal cruelty cases were often ignored in the past, the case against professional football player Michael Vick, who was involved in dog fighting, shed new light on how animals sometimes suffer from violence and neglect.
“The biggest problem in animal cruelty cases is actually catching someone. Usually you get a report from a neighbor who suspects something isn’t right,” said Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper.
The city keeps two officers focused on animal control, including Rodney Banister, who has seen cases that are heartbreaking and disturbing.
“Some circumstance you come across deserve to be felony cases, but that can be difficult to prove,” Banister said. “You also see cases where neglect has occurred and you have to consider if it was purposeful or ignorance. Sometimes education for people will correct problems.”
But animal cruelty is no longer a matter just for animal control officers to address. Research in the last two decades about serial killers and mass murderers has turned up an alarming link to such behavior with animal cruelty. Many of the criminals engaged in torturing and killing animals when they were younger. Authorities now look at such cases with new interest.
“One of the things we have to consider is, ‘Where is this leading?’” Culpepper said.
Intervention in the lives of people who commit such acts of cruelty is left to the courts. Culpepper said a judge can order counseling for someone convicted of cruelty in an attempt to redirect the person’s behavior.
Banister and Culpepper both cautioned that cruelty to animals is not a blanket guarantee that someone is headed for a life of crime.
“Is it the start of something? That is a point you have to consider. A few years ago some research was being done in the state to look at the link animal cruelty and domestic violence. A lot is being discovered, so we have to take a serious look when we’re called to investigate,” Banister said.
Much of what Banister answers in the city involves welfare checks on animals.
“Last year, I had one cruelty case that involved neglect. In those cases, too, you have to look at the circumstances. If a person has lost his job and is struggling to make ends meet, he may have trouble caring for his dog. A lot of people in that circumstance are hesitant to give up a pet, but they are unable to properly care for a dog or cat,” Banister said.
Publicized cases of animal cruelty stir a lot of emotions among area residents, similar to what people feel over cases of abuse involving children.
“A dog or cat or other pet is viewed by good owners as part of the family. They are just like a child to many people, so they understandably become upset when they are aware of abuse,” Banister said. “If more cases could be classified as felonies, it would go a long way toward preventing some of the problems.”
The Code of Alabama, Statute 13A, Chapter 11 notes:
“(a) A person commits the crime of cruelty to a dog or cat in the first degree if he or she intentionally tortures any dog or cat or skins a domestic dog or cat or offers for sale or exchange or offers to buy or exchange the fur, hide, or pelt of a domestic dog or cat. Cruelty to a dog or cat in the first degree is a Class C felony. A conviction for a felony pursuant to this section shall not be considered a felony for purposes of the Habitual Felony Offender Act, Section 13A-5-9 to 13A-5-10.1, inclusive.
(b) A person commits the crime of cruelty to a dog or cat in the second degree if he or she, in a cruel manner, overloads, overdrives, deprives of necessary sustenance or shelter, unnecessarily or cruelly beats, injuries, mutilates, or causes the same to be done. Cruelty to a dog or cat in the second degree is a Class A misdemeanor.”
The challenge for law enforcement officials is separating intentional cruelty from some forms of neglect or well-intended acts that go wrong.
“Sometimes people don’t know how to take care of animals properly. That’s where education can make a difference,” Culpepper said. “Then you run into cases where someone may be compulsive and can’t say no, and takes in more animals than they can care for. It starts with good intentions and becomes hoarding. In those cases, the animals suffer because there are too many for one person to care of.”
Banister said answering welfare calls about local animals provides officers an opportunity to educate owners about providing better care for pets.
Cullman County Animal Control Director Tim McKoy did not return calls seeking comment on this story.
David Palmer may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 256-734-2131, ext. 213.