ATLANTA -- Georgia lawmakers could reduce violence against people by cracking down on cruelty to animals, according to veterinarians, representatives of humane societies and law enforcement officials at a Senate hearing Thursday.
"Violence is violence," Randall Lockwood, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, told Sen. Robert Brown, who presided over several hours of testimony in a packed hearing room. "Perpetrators of violence don't stop to count the number of legs on their victims."
The General Assembly is expected to take up legislation this winter classifying the most serious cases of animal abuse and neglect as felonies. Offenders could be sentenced to up to five years in prison and five years on probation for the first conviction.
Mr. Brown, D-Macon, has pushed efforts to toughen penalties for animal cruelty for several years without success.
But the issue received a boost recently from publicity in the Atlanta area surrounding the discovery of a puppy whose mouth had been wired shut, presumably to keep him from barking. The case prompted 50 offers of a home and led to a petition drive calling for stiffer penalties for animal cruelty.
At Thursday's hearing, a Clayton County animal-control officer showed a video he made graphically depicting the aftermath of a particularly brutal form of animal abuse: dog fighting. Scene after scene showed pit bulls slashed and scarred from fights put on primarily by young gang members in streets and alleys.
"Eighty percent of the people I deal with go on to bigger and better crimes," said Lt. Larry Gibson, of the Animal Control Unit of the Clayton County Police Department. "They get desensitized. ... Unfortunately, I can't get our courts to see that. Hopefully, the Legislature will."
Brian Jory, a professor at the Berry College School of Education and Human Sciences, said toughening penalties for animal cruelty would send a message that such acts will not be tolerated. Even young people who merely witness incidents of animal abuse need to know that those who commit such violence will be held accountable, he said.
"We can't afford to have children who are confused over whether animal cruelty is serious," Mr. Jory said. "Increasing the penalties will underscore ... that animal cruelty is socially unacceptable."
Charles Weston, district attorney for the Macon Judicial Circuit, said the proposed bill should increase prosecutors' willingness to take on animal abuse cases, which would help "red flag" more young people at risk of committing violence against people.
At the same time, Timothy Montgomery, president of the Georgia Veterinary Association, said the measure provides enough leeway to protect the use of animals in agriculture and medical research.
Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.