Cruel Intentions: Tougher penalties needed for those who commit animal cruelty

HOUSTON -  The images can be hard to stomach -- animals left abandoned in deplorable conditions,  starving, filthy, beaten and fearing what's to become. Sometimes, only skeletons are left behind.

Octavio Gonzalez, Senior Animal Cruelty Officer with Houston SPCA, said, "It's difficult to see some of the animals, the way they're being neglected. It's heartbreaking and a lot of times I got to take a step back and not let my emotions get the best of me."

Jessica Milligan with the Harris County District Attorney's office said, "Studies and statistics show that animal cruelty is linked highly to child abuse, domestic violence and other types of violent crimes so the DA's office takes it very seriously to prosecute animal cruelty cases because, obviously, when you're protecting those animals, you're protecting families and people as well."

The fight to stop animal cruelty in Harris County is a serious one  with the Animal Cruelty Task Force formed in February 2018.

It's a collaboration of efforts between the Houston Humane Society, Precincts One and Five, Harris County Sheriff's Office, Houston Police Department and Crime Stoppers. The Task Force's goal:  no duplication of efforts.

Milligan said,  "We had seized more animals in the month of March I believe than what I believe our entity seized for the entire year of 2017. We've hit higher numbers in terms of complaints because people are calling one number instead of calling every number they know."

In 2017, the Houston SPCA's Cruelty Investigations Department opened more than 9,000 cases of animal abuse, neglect and cruelty.

Last year, the team drove more than 177,000 miles trying to protect the innocent, with single investigators handling 40 to 50 cases a week.

NewsFix cameras followed Gonzalez and his team as they investigated a report of horses not being properly cared for.

After canvassing the property for a more than an hour, the team found the owner to be neglecting their animals. They found multiple injuries to horses needing immediate veterinarian care while several others were malnourished. They would leave a notification on the owner's gate giving the owner 24 hours to comply, and if not then the animals could be seized for their protection.

Gonzalez said he never hopes it comes to that and wishes owners will understand what they are doing wrong when caring for the pets and make the necessary changes.

In 2016, Houston state representative Jessica Farrar filed a bill urging Texas legislators to create a  public database of convicted animal abusers.

If passed, the bill could help  prevent animal cruelty, and ensure pets are welcomed in safe homes.

Milligan explained how the Lone Star state doesn't have one yet, "People push for registries relating to animal cruelty and I think that's maybe been addressed at the legislative level. There isn't one now statewide. The federal system is working on including people who commit animal cruelty on their federal registries, but at the state level there isn't one."

Gonzalez said, "There could always be tougher laws in the state of Texas."

Until tougher laws get on the books, Gonzalez and his team of investigators will continue to canvass the Bayou City area, hoping to stop cases of animal neglect and abuse.

Gonzalez said, "We get great satisfaction knowing that we're the voice for the voiceless."

If you see any cases of animal abuse, you're encouraged to report those by calling in to 713-869-7722 or heading to their website where you can fill out a form.

What is Animal Cruelty?

Animal cruelty is defined as either deliberate abuse or simply the failure to take care of an animal.

In the Lone Star state, two types of laws protect animals from cruelty: civil laws and criminal laws. The laws are similar, but differ in the penalties they impose.

In a civil case, if a judge rules that a person or people have been cruel to animals, the judge may take away their animals and/or order them to pay restitution.

If prosecuted in a criminal case, a person may face penalties including fines, jail or both. Those under the age of 18 are also required to undergo counseling if convicted of animal cruelty.

Texas criminal laws only apply to domesticated animals, such as house pets and livestock defined as “domesticated living creature(s) or any wild living creature previously captured” and subject to a person’s care and control.

Prior to Loco’s Law (House Bill 653 and Senate Bill 1724) passing in September of 2001,  animal cruelty was not considered a felony under Texas law. Today, animal cruelty convictions are classified as either a felony or misdemeanor. Loco's Law was named for a puppy called Loco, whose eyes were intentionally gouged out. That law makes animal cruelty a felony and punishable by a $10,000 fine and up to two years in jail.

Compared to other states, Texas’ animal cruelty statutes are very narrow in scope because they exclude certain types of animals—including circus animals, wild animals and animals used in experiments—from protection from animal cruelty laws.

Additionally, section 42.10 of the Texas Penal Code prohibits dog fighting, and also deems offensive such activities as attending a dog fight as a spectator, or participating in the earnings or operation of a dog fighting facility.

Cockfighting is also a crime in Texas, where it is a felony, punishable by two years in a state jail and/or a $10,000 fine. Since 2002, a federal law has prohibited any interstate or foreign transport of fighting animals.

The animals found most likely to be the victims of animal abuse are dogs. A study in 2011, found that dogs made up 70 % of the victims of animal cruelty.