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Support for animal cruelty law still strong

Deseret Morning News Graphic

Rhonda Kamper can look into her dog Henry's one eye and tell you why, or point to a kitten's scalded and broken tail as an example of how Utah's animal-cruelty laws should be strengthened so that people who commit such acts get punishment and help.

Her former husband, Marc Christopher Vincent, baked Henry in an oven for five minutes because, she says, he was jealous of the dog. Before that, the husband used a leaf-blower as a weapon on the small mixed-breed animal and put the dog's eye out.

The kitten's alleged abuser, another man, is due in court today on misdemeanor charges stemming from accusations that he hurt felines to control his girlfriend.

These are the reasons why Kamper is practically on Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr.'s doorstep, tying up his fax machines with reams of petitions and calling his office constantly, urging Utah's top political leader to call lawmakers into a special session.

A proposed law to fulfill Kamper's wish would have been dubbed "Henry's Law," but it failed in the final minutes on the final night of this winter's legislative session. The bill was a victim of time, or as she says, a victim of misunderstanding. But ultimately, the change to Utah's law that would make certain acts of animal cruelty a felony — those deemed to be egregious torture — did not pass.

A recent poll commissioned by the Deseret Morning News indicates lawmakers would be heeding their constituents' wishes if they opened at least one eye to Henry's Law.

Conducted March 7-8, the survey by Dan Jones & Associates questioned 418 Utah residents and found that a large majority — 74 percent — wanted the bill passed. Only 22 percent were opposed. The survey had a margin of error of 5 percent.

Utah is one of nine states in the nation that do not have a felony provision for the torture of certain animals. At its worst, animal cruelty in Utah is a class A misdemeanor, which can mean up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Henry's abuser, Vincent, was convicted, given six months and fined $500. Vincent was released early, about five months into his sentence, and ordered to get counseling.

Supporters of a more substantial law on animal cruelty say the torture of animals is linked to the infliction of harm on people — abuse, rape, assault. The need to control and dominate starts with practice on an animal and later escalates to people, they say.

John Albert Taylor raped and killed a young Washington Terrace girl and was later executed by a Utah firing squad. But years before, he had raped a Florida woman. And years before that, while growing up in Roy, authorities say he was throwing live puppies against a garage door so he could hear the sound.

The studies and their message have been presented to Utah lawmakers for several years. Each time, Kamper says, the effort to boost penalties for the worst of the worst cases has been opposed, mostly by rural lawmakers who fear it would interfere with the business of raising livestock, or hunting.

The lawmakers' reluctance confuses former Utahn Stephan Otto, because Utah shares the cowboy ways of neighbors such as Wyoming. Leaders in that state saw fit to pass the provision.

Otto, who is head of legislative affairs for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, conducts an annual survey assessing the laws of the nation's 50 states regarding animal cruelty. Utah ranks among the five states having the least-stringent laws in the nation.

Kamper and her colleagues took that information to Utah's Capitol Hill, pushing hour after hour during the session to get Henry's Law passed. They circulated thousands of petitions but failed. Kamper turned to a new petition asking for a special session but says she has been politely rebuffed. Try again next year.

"They don't know what I have been through," she says. "They have not been in my shoes."

Those shoes, she says, meant clawing through the final stages of a deteriorating marriage and fending off the jealousies of a husband bitter over her affection for a Chihuahua mix.

"I wasn't aware of a lot of (apparent dog abuse) because I was at work," she says.

The clues included discovering bite marks on the dog's face. She says she thinks her former husband used to bite the animal in the face hard enough to cause sores.

If Henry was in her lap when the couple was sitting on the couch, it was an issue. If she took the dog for a walk, it was an issue.

"I'd tell him to come walk with us. He wouldn't," she said.

Increasingly suspicious, she warned Vincent that if anything happened to Henry, their marriage was over.

The response?

"You love that dog more than me."

One day, she came home to find the dog injured with burns. After pressing for an answer, she was told the dog had been placed in the oven.

"I saw a side of (my husband) I had never seen before."

By the weekend, she had left.

Critics of bolstering animal-cruelty penalties say that such a provision would suggest a pet's life is valued above that of a spouse, a child, a neighbor. If you hit your spouse, for instance, it's only a misdemeanor.

So if you hit your dog, it's a felony? Not so.

"We're not talking about that," said Anne Davis, a supporter of Henry's Law and co-founder of helpushelpthem.

org, a Web site created to get the proposal passed. "What happened to Henry was obscene. The mindset of people who can do that should really be considered,"

Animal torture that amounts to a felony might be akin to the revulsion people feel when certain acts are inflicted on people, Davis says.

Place a baby in the oven for five minutes at 200 degrees and watch the public outrage. It wouldn't be a misdemeanor.

Hold the spouse's hand to a hot burner on the stove for five minutes. It wouldn't be a misdemeanor.

Otto says the way in which society governs the treatment of its most vulnerable is a reflection of its values as a whole.

But after traveling the nation lobbying lawmakers for tougher animal cruelty laws, he knows that such measures are often not legislators' priority.

"What they need to know is that in the United States, 63 percent of all households contain at last one companion animal," Otto says. "We tell them, even if you don't care, the majority of your constituents do. Animals don't vote, but the people who love them do."