Legislators delay vote on animal-torture bill

Henry's Law would make hurting pets a third-degree felony
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Henry, the dog for which Henry's Law is named, rallied the human troops Wednesday.

Every dog has its day, but Henry will have to wait for his.

State lawmakers meeting in special session Wednesday punted consideration of legislation that seeks to impose tougher penalties for acts of animal torture, opting for more discussion, debate and a possible vote next year.

Frustrated supporters of the bill groaned at the vote, as Henry, the movement's mascot, weaved his way between legs in the Senate gallery, tail wagging and his one eye twinkling.

The bill became known as Henry's Law for the small black terrier-Chihuahua mix who lost an eye when owner Rhonda Kamper's now-ex-husband chased the dog with a leaf blower, stuffed him in an oven and cooked him for five minutes at 200 degrees.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, would make it a third-degree felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $5,000 fine for torturing an animal. A similar bill passed both chambers of the Utah Legislature earlier this year but faltered in the final hour.

Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, argued that the bill could potentially ruin the life of someone "who does a one-time stupid thing," and proposed an alternative that would make animal torture a felony on a second offense committed within five years.

Sen. Jon Greiner, a Republican who is Ogden's police chief, said that other crimes - child abuse, sexual abuse of a minor, assault of a police officer, and assault of a school employee - that are Class A misdemeanors under Utah law.

"How do we get to a third-degree felony [for animal torture] when we don't have enough respect for human life, sexually abused children, that we don't have a higher standard of care for them?" asked Greiner.

The argument didn't wash with Kamper.

"They're the lawmakers. If they have a problem with child abuse being a Class A misdemeanor, then change the law," she said.

Greiner suggested jettisoning the bill until January, and the Senate approved the motion 18-11.

However, at various times during the day it looked as if Henry's Law might make a comeback, as Republican senators met in closed caucuses and discussed reversing course and passing Christensen's bill. And talks between opposing sides chipped away at some of the differences.

"When we got our egos and personalities out of the way, we realized we were on the same page," said Christensen. "What we're trying to do is deter the torture of animals."

But both sides said they needed more time and the main sticking point remained - whether animal torture should be a felony on a first or second offense.

"We are very close to an agreement on animal torture, animal cruelty and animal abuse," Senate President Jon Valentine, R-Orem, said at the end of the day.

Earlier in the day about 20 people gathered outside the Capitol with signs in a show of support for the legislation. Backers of the bill believe a majority of Utahns feel the same way.

Utah is one of seven states where it is not a felony to torture an animal, although Valentine noted that the penalty for a Class A misdemeanor in Utah is harsher than a felony in some states. Supporters of the law point to the case of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who has agreed to plead guilty to running a dogfighting ring, including drowning and shooting poor-performing animals, as proof the law is needed.

"Right now, if that crime had happened here in Utah, he'd walk," said Cheryl Smith, executive director of the Utah Animal Adoption Center.