Republican Del. Robert Costa testifies at the House Judiciary… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
An owner of the Siberian husky whose shooting death last year became a rallying cry for animal welfare advocates, urged state lawmakers Thursday to stiffen the penalties for violating the state's animal cruelty law.
Ryan Rettaliata, who owned Bear-Bear along with his wife, said the newly married couple felt as if they had lost a child when Bear-Bear died after being shot in an Anne Arundel County dog park. Rettaliata said he hoped the change in law would spare other pets the same fate.
"As a person who's never had a child, Bear-Bear was our child," Rettaliata said at a House Judiciary Committee hearing. "If you can't understand being a dog owner, you can understand having a child."
The bill, sponsored by Del. Robert A. Costa, an Anne Arundel Republican, would increase the penalty for "inflicting unnecessary suffering or pain on an animal" from 90 days to six months imprisonment and increase the fine from $1,000 to $2,500. It would also create a new offense of setting an animal on fire or abusing an animal using a handgun, rifle or dangerous weapon, with a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Democratic Sen. John Astle is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, where a hearing is scheduled next month.
Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, who testified at the hearing, pitched the legislation to Costa and said the Bear-Bear case was the impetus.
Leopold also cited two recent cases in Baltimore at the hearing. This month, city prosecutors said they would retry the animal-cruelty case against two teens who were accused of fatally setting fire to a pit bull named Phoenix in 2009, after the first trial ended in a hung jury. Another pair of teenagers were charged last week with multiple counts of animal cruelty for allegedly dousing a cat with lighter fluid and setting it on fire, inflicting third and fourth degree burns on over 60 percent of the animal's body.
"These crimes against animals are often precursors to violent crimes perpetrated by juveniles," said Leopold, a Republican. "Maryland ought to sound a very strong message that it is unacceptable to abuse animals. I have a dog and a cat myself. …They're part of the family."
Keith Elgin Shepherd, a federal police officer, was fined and given probation before judgment last November for shooting 3-year-old Bear-Bear. He said the dog attacked his pet — a German shepherd named Asia — and was threatening him and his wife at a community dog park in Severn in August. The Rettaliata family disputed that, and said Bear-Bear was known as a friendly dog around the neighborhood.
Shepherd pleaded not guilty on charges of misdemeanor animal cruelty and discharging his personal handgun within 100 yards of homes in the Quail Run neighborhood. A probation before judgment finding allowed Shepherd to avoid a criminal record if he successfully completes probation. Many animal welfare advocates were dissatisfied with the penalty.
Committee Chairman John F. Vallario Jr., a Democrat who represents parts of Prince George's and Calvert counties, asked whether the change could be tackled on a local level. Leopold said he hadn't considered that option because he believes it's a statewide issue. Del. Michael A. McDermott, a committee member and Republican who represents Wicomico and Worcester counties, asked about the need for a specific penalty for the use of a handgun or rifle. Leopold said the bill has "absolutely no application to hunters."
The hearing occurred during a daylong lobbying event in which dozens of animal welfare advocates converged on the state capital. Several other bills are being considered by state lawmakers this legislative session, including a bill sponsored by Del. Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher, a Montgomery County Democrat, and Democratic Sen. James N. Robey of Howard County. That bill would allow judges to prohibit convicted animal abusers from owning animals.
Carolyn Kilborn, chairwoman and founder of Maryland Votes for Animals, cited a study by the Animal League Defense Fund that ranked Maryland No. 43 in the country on a wide range of animal protection laws.
"We are sick to death of the cruelty," said Kilborn, who testified before the committee. "We want change. We want protection for our animals, and we want it now."
Rettaliata said he and his wife, Rachel Rettaliata, who was unable to attend the hearing, adopted two Huskies about four months ago from an animal rescue organization.
"They've been very therapeutic," said Rettaliata.