‘Buddy’ case a rarity

Majority of reports result in warnings

Paris, a severely emaciated dog, in her cage at the Mesa County Animal Shelter. The dog was found and taken to an emergency vet due to malnutrition.


Animal cruelty

Crime definition

Colorado law defines cruelty to animals as an instance when a person knowingly, recklessly or with criminal negligence:

• Overdrives, overloads, overworks or torments an animal.

• Deprives an animal of necessary sustenance.

• Unnecessarily or cruelly beats an animal.

• Allows an animal to be housed in a manner that results in chronic or repeated serious physical harm.

• Carries or confines an animal in or upon any vehicles in a cruel or reckless manner.

• Engages in a sexual act with an animal.

• Mistreats or neglects any animal, or causes or procures it to be done.

• While in charge or custody of any animal, fails to provide it with proper food, drink or protection from the weather consistent with the species, breed and type of animal involved.

• Abandons an animal.

Crime classification

Cruelty to animals is a misdemeanor, but aggravated cruelty to animals is a class six felony. A second charge of aggravated cruelty is a class five felony.

Sentencing standards

Sentences range from a fine of $400 to $5,000 for animal cruelty and a fine of up to $100,000 and/or 90 days to 18 months in jail for aggravated animal cruelty.

Fines and sentences can be smaller in municipal court and/or for offenses with less or no malicious or long-term negligence or abuse, such as keeping an animal in a hot car.

Anyone who has a previous animal-cruelty conviction and goes to court for something that has an underlying animal-cruelty base will get a mandatory minimum fine of $1,000 and has to complete an anger-management program.

A court can tack on an anger-management program to a sentence for animal cruelty. If the person completes the program successfully, the court may suspend any fine in the sentence, except for a minimum $500 fee ordered at the time of sentencing.

The court will order an evaluation prior to sentencing in order to provide a proper sentence. Defendants have to pay for evaluations unless they qualify for a public defender.

— Source: Colorado Revised Statutes

The dog’s hip bones, vertebrae and ribs protruded through her short black fur.

She hadn’t eaten in so long that her stomach couldn’t hold down food. Out of energy, she could no longer walk. Without a veterinarian putting her on an IV and a liquid diet, she may not have survived the night.

The story of Paris, an abandoned dog found in a stranger’s backyard Jan. 21 and rescued by Mesa County Animal Services, is disturbing. And fortunately, it’s not common in Mesa County, according to Animal Services Director Penny McCarty.

Last year, Animal Services responded to 907 calls from people asking officers to check on animals. Another 276 people called about animals they thought may be in immediate danger, and 346 people called about sick or injured animals. The number of calls to Animal Services has increased, McCarty said, and it’s likely because people feel more comfortable reporting possible animal cruelty or neglect.

Just 27 of the calls in 2009 resulted in an Animal Services officer issuing a court summons to a person suspected of harming an animal. The majority of the rest of the calls were unfounded or handled with pet owner education or a warning for an owner to correct the situation within a set time. Sometimes, as with Paris, an owner cannot be found. Consequently a summons cannot be issued.

The story of Buddy, a German shepherd mix that authorities allege was stolen from Delta and dragged to death on Colorado National Monument last month, has caused a worldwide uproar from animal lovers and spawned a petition and a Facebook group titled “Justice for Buddy.” Buddy’s suspected killer, Steven Clay Romero of Grand Junction, pleaded not guilty this week to a federal charge of animal cruelty. If convicted, Romero could receive a maximum sentence of three years in prison, a year of parole, and/or a $100,000 fine.

Acts of cruelty to animals are not a common sight for Animal Services workers, McCarty said. Neglect is more prevalent, she said, and rarely intentional.

“What happened to Buddy was extreme,” McCarty said. “What we typically see is people sliding into neglect. They start out great with a puppy, but then it piddles too much on the carpet, and they have company coming, so they put it outside, and it stays outside, and then maybe they feed it less, and their shelter falls apart.”

“That and dogs in hot cars we see more than the out-and-out-intentional ‘I’m going to hurt this dog,’ ” McCarty said, adding, “That doesn’t make it right.”

About 3 percent of calls to check on an animal result in a summons, and a smaller percentage of court cases deal with animal cruelty. Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said his office sees about 1,800 to 1,900 felony cases a year and another 10,000 or so misdemeanor cases. In 2009, just nine cases involved animals, and eight involved animal-cruelty charges. That’s up from eight cases involving animals in 2008 and three in 2007. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver does not keep statistics about federal animal-cruelty cases in Mesa County.

The likelihood of a case involving intentional or premeditated harm to an animal is slim, Hautzinger said.

“I can remember one in my time as district attorney,” said Hautzinger, who took office in 2004.

That case involved a neighbor alleging a man threw rocks at a dog, Hautzinger said, and the man was found not guilty.

Five of the nine animal cases in 2009 involved juvenile suspects. The three who have appeared in court so far have been found guilty of stealing farm animals and neglecting or mistreating them. The boys were sentenced to 80 hours of community service, two years probation, four days in juvenile detention, and fines of up to $3,805.

For the adult cases, one man received six days in jail, 18 months of probation and a $1,182.50 fine for torturing an animal during a domestic violence dispute.

Cases involving a woman accused of neglecting an animal left at a hotel, a man letting three dogs run at large and kill chickens, and a man facing three counts of cruelty to animals are scheduled to go to trial by the end of March.

Grand Junction’s municipal court heard the bulk of 2009’s animal-cruelty cases. Most of those involved people leaving dogs in hot cars, Municipal Court Administrator Joanna Adams said.

“I can’t remember any cruelty where they’ve beaten (animals),” Adams said. “Mostly they just don’t think.”

The municipal court can send a person convicted of animal cruelty to jail for up to a year or impose a fine of up to $1,000. Most municipal cases in 2009 ended in a fine of $250 to $500, although one man was sentenced to 10 days in jail for neglecting a dog that was found with a collar so tight around its neck that the collar had to be cut out of the dog’s skin. The dog needed stitches.

Most defendants are ordered to attend the county’s pet ownership class. The class clues pet owners in on care tips they may not have heard about and convinces a small percentage of them that they aren’t ready for a pet.

Either way, McCarty wants the class to convince people not to repeat the actions that landed them in court.

“Our main goal is to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she said.


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