Paws for a Moment By Bonny Corbeil

The History of V.I. Animal Abuse Law

Why is there still so much animal abuse? Don’t we now have a law in the Virgin Islands against animal abuse? This is a question that is repeatedly asked.

Yes, we do finally have a law against animal abuse but it was not easy to pass. Many animal advocates through the years repeatedly attended hearings to speak up for the numerous heartbreaking animal abuse cases personally witnessed.
In both 1996 and 2001 attempts were made to pass an anti-cruelty to animals bill. Both failed. There were very strong verbal disagreements widely reported between the former senators about its importance or even validity. Some felt that it should not be passed without including cockfighting — a commonly accepted activity here in the territory. Others simply thought that how animals were treated was the sole right of the owner, and only their business.

It took many years of frustration and disappointment for both animal advocates and mental health workers in the V.I. to finally convince our lawmakers that there was a proven link between animal abuse and domestic abuse, perpetrating the disturbing and vicious cycle of violence escalating.

Finally, once again, in 2004, then Senator Adlah Donastorg Jr. sponsored Bill Amendment #25-0140. I was present at this hearing to testify on behalf of the St. John Animal Care Center Board of Directors in a senate hearing. We were able to get letters of support from many concerned citizens on St. John who wanted laws against animal abuse. A good number of humanitarian and animal activists brought numerous heartbreaking photographs taken throughout the years of the senseless suffering of animals by people obviously seeking ways to express their repressed and angry feelings.

The senate unanimously passed the Animal Cruelty Bill in 2004, legislation which substantially stiffened penalties for animal cruelty whilemaking animal abuse and neglect felonies, but former Governor Charles Turnbull vetoed it, saying it contained “draconian” penalties.
The bill would have set procedures for the government to seize animals, including allowing enforcement officers of the V.I. Agriculture Department and the territory’s humane societies to take such action.

The Animal Cruelty Bill would have allowed a person to trespass on private property to give food and water to an animal that had gone hungry for at least 12 hours. In his veto message, Turnbull objected to legalizing trespassing.

Turnbull also said he would find it difficult to sign an animal cruelty bill that did not address cockfighting. Donastorg attacked the governor’s stance as hypocritical because Turnbull’s executive branch issued business licenses for cockfighting establishments.

On May 5, 2005, the V.I. Senate voted unanimously to approve an override of Turnbull’s second veto of the much debated animal cruelty bill.
This law defines first and second degree offenses, and specific penalties for each crime. First degree offenses include killing, maiming, torturing, disfiguring, and inflicting pain on an animal. An adult who forces a minor to carry out these acts could also be charged with a first degree offense. A conviction would be punishable by up to two years in prison and a $2,000 fine.

Second degree animal abuse, a misdemeanor; is defined as intentionally inflicting pain on an animal, or transporting an animal in a way that causes unreasonable pain. The offense is punishable by up to one year in prison, and a fine of $500.

Impounding an animal for 24 hours without food or water, or knowingly and recklessly failing to provide adequate care for an animal could result in a charge of second degree animal neglect.

Individuals other than the animal’s owner who provide care after the 24 hour period will not be liable for doing so. Such individuals may seek reimbursement of money spent on the animal. Failure to provide adequate care could result in a fine of $500, and 100 hours of community service. Anyone convicted of these offenses is prohibited from owning an animal for five years, with a probation violation occurring if the regulation is not adhered to.

An Animal Abuse Fund was also established to cover the expenses for carrying out the laws and necessary procedures, including cruelty prevention programs.

Cockfighting is presently legal in the USVI. The groups did not want to jeopardize the long-awaited passage of this bill again by including it.
Without understanding this law and the amount of dedication and years spent on its passage, we simply cannot move forward in our attempts to stop the inhumane treatment of animals. Sadly, when animals are abused, we as humans support violent behavior. Period.