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Bill Sponsored by Senator Ryan Weld Adding Teeth to West Virginia Animal Cruelty Law Won’t Advance

CHARLESTON — Intentionally shooting a dog or meaning to injure any animal will continue to be a misdemeanor offense in West Virginia.

A bill creating the felony offense of aggravated cruelty to animals, and establishing penalties for the offense, died in the West Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 309 had been introduced by Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke. It was killed in committee by a 9-7 vote. A similar measure from Weld passed the full Senate last year with a vote of 32-2, but failed to get a full vote in the House in 2020.

“It did not go well,” Weld said of the vote in the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. “There just aren’t enough members on the Judiciary Committee who think it should be a felony to intentionally shoot a dog, or intentionally starve a dog or cat.”

There were a wide-ranging number of reasons given by committee members for not making aggravated cruelty to an animal a felony.

Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, said aggravated animal cruelty is already a misdemeanor in West Virginia, while abortion and the killing of an unborn child is not, said

“Putting this ahead of abortion — I have a hard time with that, myself,” he said.

Some members questioned whether keeping chickens in a chicken coop out in a field during hot weather would constitute “aggravated cruelty.”

Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, spoke of medical emergencies involving a number of his own animals, and questioned whether he would have been guilty under the bill if he made the wrong decision about seeking professional care for an animal.

“If I had made the wrong choice and my dog had lost their leg because of a bad decision, would I be a felon? Who decides what necessary treatment is?” he asked.

“If my dog had died I could have potentially lost my right to vote, keep and bear arms, any number of things because in somebody’s view I made the wrong decision,” he added. “If the jury made the decision, my life could have been turned upside down because of that.”

He suggested costs for treating animals can be expensive, and decisions not to seek medical care for an animal may be based on a person’s ability to pay for the treatment.

“What we’re really saying is it’s a felony to be poor in West Virginia under some circumstances,” Karnes said.

Counsel for the committee said she really couldn’t answer that question.

“Aggravated cruelty” is defined in the bill as actions that cause serious bodily injury to an animal. It can also mean withholding care when it results in the serious injury or death of an animal, or not providing proper sustenance to the animal — including food or water, or shelter from the elements.

The legislation states those found guilty of animal abuse “may be imprisoned in a state correctional facility not less than one nor more than five years, and be fined not less than $1,000 nor more than $5,000.

Weld said he is unsure whether he will try to push the bill again in the future.

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