States crack down on wildlife cruelty

Recent attacks shine a spotlight on animal mutilation and killing

  • WOULD STRONGER LAWS PREVENT THIS? A jury in Santa Fe Springs, California, found the man who used a crossbow to shoot this opossum innocent of animal cruelty charges

    Courtesy Southeast Area Animal Control Authority, Downey, California

RAWLINS, Wyo. — He stalked the buck antelope across the sagebrush desert, northeast of town where the flats are broken by tall, rocky slopes. But don’t call it hunting.

Seventeen-year-old Samuel Hartman chased down the antelope on a four-wheeler. Once he’d exhausted the animal, he ran it over. The impact broke the antelope’s legs, but didn’t kill it. Then Hartman strapped the antelope onto the ATV and drove to a campsite, where a crew he worked with was collecting moss rock to decorate Colorado homes.

While an audience watched, the boy put on a show, encouraging his pit bull to attack. The dog tore off the antelope’s genitals. Eventually, the boy finished off his victim with a pistol shot and dumped it in the desert.

Acting on a tip after the June 2001 torture and killing, Wyoming Game and Fish Department warden Brian Nesvik found the antelope’s remains. Analyzing the ATV, the department’s lab found hair and tissue from two more antelope that had been run over.

Hartman was hauled into state court last summer and convicted of wanton destruction of an antelope and cruelty to animals. He was hit with $1,410 in fines and restitution, and lost his hunting privileges for nine years. Judge Wade Waldrip also sentenced him to 10 days in jail and two years’ supervised probation.

Were those penalties tough enough to deter others who would be so cruel to wildlife? Many people around the West don’t think so.

The tip of the iceberg

The antelope torture was “creepy behavior” and “gross exploitation” of wildlife, says Jeff Obrecht, spokesman for Wyoming Game and Fish. Yet it’s not an isolated case.

Other recent investigations in Wyoming have documented drivers deliberately running over wild turkeys, and many sprees of illegal slaughter, beheading or bludgeoning of elk, moose, bighorn sheep and deer. In other states, recent wildlife cruelty cases include a wild horse harassed to death in Utah, a raccoon stomped to death in Oregon, lit firecrackers shoved down the throats of ducks in New Mexico, and a squirrel tortured in Boulder, Colo.

Wildlife agents and animal-rights activists are trying to raise public awareness of such crimes, to improve the odds of catching any perpetrator. It’s a struggle, because crimes against wildlife often occur in remote spots with few witnesses. Many cases are never solved because some judges don’t care enough, and often “prosecutors just lose interest,” Obrecht says.

Yet cruelty to animals is an indicator of wider criminal behavior. “You see the whole rotten mix,” says Jay Lawson, Wyoming’s chief game warden, “animal torture, injuring children, assaulting women and, of course, substantial drug use, particularly methamphetamine.”

Julie Janovsky, who works in the U.S. Humane Society’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, says that when her group asked an FBI psychologist how many serial killers began by abusing animals, he responded, “The real question should be, ‘How many have not?’ ”

Punishment is inconsistent

Today, 37 states — including most in the West — have some form of felony-level penalty for cruelty to animals. That’s up from just 10 states a decade ago. But Idaho and Utah do not — and until very recently, Wyoming didn’t either. While some states are tough — in Oregon and Washington offenders can get five years in prison, and in Arizona they can be slapped with a $150,000 fine — other states are lenient. In Arizona, Idaho and Utah, the maximum prison sentence is one year. The maximum fine in Montana is only $1,000.

And in many states, the law’s emphasis is on pets, not wildlife. Several years ago, a New Mexico man was found guilty of a misdemeanor for snaring two deer and letting them rot on fences. The state Supreme Court reversed the conviction, saying the law didn’t apply to wildlife. Now New Mexico’s felony law, which took effect in 1999, applies to all animals except reptiles and insects.

“It’s absurd to think that wild animals shouldn’t be afforded the same protection as domestic animals,” says Lisa Jennings, director of Animal Protection of New Mexico. “They feel the same pain.”

In Wyoming in early March, animal lovers, backed by national groups including the Animal Legal Defense Fund, pushed a bill through the Legislature to crack down on cruelty against domestic animals and wildlife. The proposal was called “Dexter’s Bill,” named for a basset hound in Torrington that was burned and mutilated.

The new law allows a felony charge against any person who “cruelly beats, tortures, torments, injures or mutilates an animal resulting in the death or required euthanasia of the animal.” The punishment is up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Meanwhile, since Samuel Hartman was convicted for torturing the antelope, he’s been arrested again and charged with two thefts related to vehicles. His family has filed a complaint, claiming the female cop who arrested him this time used excessive force.

The author writes from Cody, Wyoming.

You can contact ...

      Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Jeff Obrecht, 307/777-4532;
      U.S. Humane Society, Washington, D.C., 202/452-1100,;
         Animal Legal Defense Fund, anti-cruelty division in Portland, Oregon, 503/231-1602,
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