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Animal cruelty not easy to define, as Florida cases show

Was the rooster a pet or a pest?

Roaming a neighborhood just north of St. Petersburg, it crowed at dawn, charming some residents who felt they were living in the country.

But Eric Nicastro didn't see it that way. Deputies say he shot the rooster one Saturday morning in April. Prosecutors charged him with animal cruelty.

In another case, a man faced a felony charge for killing a raccoon. Last month, two teens were arrested after shooting a squirrel.

These animals belonged to no one. They weren't typical companion animals like dogs or cats. So why were charges brought?

The cases highlight an ambiguity in the state animal cruelty law that doesn't specify the protected animals. Technically, a person could be convicted for cruelly killing a mouse or a lizard.

Defense attorneys say the statute is too broad, while animal advocates counter that the crime is more about the violence than the value of the animal.

Often, the public decides.

"That's what the jury system's about," said Richard Ripplinger, county court director for the State Attorney's Office in Pinellas County.

"There's probably a part of the population that really doesn't care about a dead rooster and there's part of the population that does. You pick a jury from the community and ultimately they'll make a decision on that."

As attitudes toward animals change, so do animal cruelty cases. Prosecutors try to gauge a community's reaction to decide which offenses are worth pursuing.

The animal cruelty law forbids the unnecessary and intentional killing of an animal. That, too, is up for interpretation. In a society where hunting and eating meat are acceptable, killing a deer with a bow and arrow is allowed. The humane slaughter of animals is thought to be a necessity. So is euthanasia.

But Tampa animal lawyer Jennifer Dietz sees a shift favoring the rights of animals as their role in people's lives has changed.

"Because we've turned into an urban society, we have brought animals into our homes now," Dietz said. "One hundred years ago, we didn't."

The result is that many people view their pets as family members rather than property. That sympathy toward "sentient beings" has extended to less sympathetic animals, like roosters, raccoons and squirrels. Dietz says that within a generation, animals could have rights in court.

Barbara Lockwood, the executive director of the Tampa Bay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says the animal cruelty law isn't as much about punishing people as it is about educating them.

She says cruelty to animals is an important crime because it indicates that a person could be violent toward people, as well.

"The way to get their attention is to talk about what's the same," Lockwood said. "What's the same is the violence."

That's a chief reason Ripplinger of the State Attorney's Office cites for pursuing prosecutions.

But what happens when the perversion is absent? In the raccoon case, the defense attorney said his client was trying to keep a baby raccoon from suffering.

Eric Hill was a roofing supervisor called to a site after the workers fired up a tar heater and a family of singed raccoons ran out. He heard a baby raccoon crying inside. He figured the stuck animal would suffer longer if he tried to take the machine apart to rescue it. So he fired it up again, burning the raccoon to death.

There's no explicit exception for "mercy killings" in the cruelty statute, but Dietz said it's inherent in the definition. She suggested that Hill could try to prove that his decision saved the raccoon from suffering.

But his attorney, Jim Beach, worked out a plea deal with prosecutors recently in which Hill will get community service and a fine. Beach wanted to avoid a jury trial because he was afraid people's passions would take hold. "People were calling the state attorney to get his hide," Beach said.

Meanwhile, both Beach and another defense attorney say there's a sense that the charges have gone too far.

Lucas Fleming represents Nicastro, who was charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty and improper discharge of a firearm in the April rooster death.

When the prosecution offered his client a plea of 180 days in jail, Fleming scoffed.

Fleming thought the deal showed skewed priorities, comparing it to the punishment that Nick Bollea received for reckless driving in the Clearwater crash that left his friend severely injured for life.

"Our position was, why should he get the same jail sentence that Nick Bollea got almost killing somebody?" Fleming asked.

Unusual cruelty arrests

November: Two teens in north Pinellas County are arrested on animal cruelty charges after police saw them shoot and kill a squirrel. Prosecutors haven't decided whether they will file formal charges against the pair.

April: A 30-year-old man is charged with shooting a rooster in a neighborhood north of St. Petersburg. He is awaiting trial.

April: A 49-year-old roofing supervisor burns a baby raccoon in a tar machine in St. Petersburg. He is arrested on an animal cruelty charge and later accepts a plea deal with community service and a fine.

May 2005: A 21-year-old man in Palm Harbor is arrested on an animal cruelty charge after he kills an opossum. Though a neighbor reported that the opossum had been chopped up with a machete, prosecutors later learn that the animal had attacked a dog, which the man was protecting. Prosecutors drop the charge.

September 2004: A 22-year-old Largo man is charged with animal cruelty after an opossum was found strung from a light pole. The animal had been beaten to death. A baby that clung to the marsupial's cold body suffered hypothermia and later was euthanized. The adult opossum also had earphones placed around its neck and a note attached to its body that read: "I'm suicidal so I hung myself b----." People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and a private donor offer a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest. The arrested man is sentenced to two years in prison after pleading to charges of animal cruelty and violating probation on previous burglary charges.

June 2004: A 28-year-old Palm Harbor man is charged with animal cruelty for dumping powdered chlorine into a 600-gallon saltwater fish tank at an aquarium store. Nearly 3,000 sea creatures die, including coral, starfish, clams, snails and crabs. The man agrees to a deal in which he pleads no contest to a lesser charge of misdemeanor criminal mischief and is ordered to pay $4,000 in restitution.

June 2002: A 35-year-old Clearwater man is arrested after he captures a peacock in Dunedin and carries it to his home. The bird dies of heat exhaustion. The man puts the bird in his freezer to eat later. He pleads guilty to animal cruelty and receives two years of probation.

Animal cruelty not easy to define, as Florida cases show 12/26/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 30, 2008 5:08pm]
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