A coalition of animal shelter operators hopes the case of a recent kitten death will boost its efforts to make animal abuse a felony in Utah.
On Aug. 28, a jury found Steven Lee Hovey, 34, guilty of aggravated cruelty to an animal, a class A misdemeanor, and reckless child abuse, a class B misdemeanor, for killing a 10-year-old girl's kitten.
Hovey is accused of twisting the head of a kitten named Tyson on June 17, 2002, because he was upset with the child's mother for spurning his sexual advances. The kitten scratched Hovey and ran to another room. Hovey followed the kitten, picked it up and slammed it multiple times against the floor and a wall.
Salt Lake County prosecutors said the man left the house, with the kitten's blood and feces on the wall, carrying the quivering kitten by the tail.
The jury found Hovey's girlfriend, Susan Lee Parry, not guilty of obstructing justice charges. She was cleared of accusations of disposing the kitten's body.
Hovey will be sentenced in December. Shelter operators throughout Utah applaud the jury's decision to find Hovey guilty.
"In the five years or more that I've been here, that stands out as the most painful case I've been aware of," Salt Lake County Animal Services spokeswoman Temma Martin said.
But the law is too lenient, said Gene Baierschmidt, executive director of the Humane Society of Utah.
Baierschmidt is organizing a petition drive to put the animal abuse issue on the November 2004 ballot. He wants voters to choose whether animal abuse convictions should be a third-degree felony, with penalties of up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
The class A misdemeanor carries up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine.
Animal abuse penalties with more teeth would provide prosecutors an incentive to try such cases, Baierschmidt said.
Baierschmidt also believes felony penalties could deter would-be animal abusers.
Studies have shown people who abuse animals are likely to be violent toward other people, Baierschmidt said.
"We think that's a real problem that needs to be addressed," he said. "These people who abuse animals need to be punished. More importantly, they need to get into treatment."
The petition needs 76,000 signatures by May 2004 to become an initiative on the November 2004 ballot. Thus far, there are 20,000 signatures, Baierschmidt said.
Forty-one other states have a felony provision for cruelty to animals. "Even, surprisingly, Wyoming," Baierschmidt said. "Last year they passed it in the (state) Legislature."
The coalition that's pushing the petition includes Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Wasatch Humane in Bountiful and No More Homeless Pets in Utah.
The coalition chose not to push the issue through the Utah Legislature because last year it could not get a Republican to sponsor its bill. And Baierschmidt believes the bill would only have a chance of passing if it was backed by a Republican.
"I don't think a lot of (legislators) like animals," said Baierschmidt. "They view this as sort of an animal rights thing."
Salt Lake mayoral candidate Frank Pignanelli, who sponsored the last round of animal abuse penalty increases in 1996 when he was the House minority leader, acknowledged it was difficult to dispel legislators' suspicions the bill would target agriculture or the rodeo, and that its proponents are members of extremist animal rights groups.
During a special session in 1996, the Utah Legislature enhanced animal abuse penalties to a class A misdemeanor from a class C misdemeanor.
When he was House minority leader, Salt Lake mayoral candidate Frank Pignanelli wanted to make some animal abuse crimes a felony but could only get the penalties raised if he capped them at a class A misdemeanor, he said.
"It can be a challenge," he said. "Believe me, initiatives are not easy, either."