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Officials applaud shark-dragging arrests, hopeful for stricter animal cruelty penalties

Left to right: Spencer Heintz, 23; Michael Wenzel, 21; and Robert Lee Benac III, 28; all face animal cruelty charges, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, stemming from a viral video that shows a shark being dragged behind a boat on a rope as men laugh each time its body slams the water.

A viral video drew anger and outrage after it showed a flailing shark tethered to a boat, and three men laughing as its lifeless body thrashed in the waters behind them.

The video surfaced on social media in July. In it the men — Michael Wenzel, 21; Spencer Heintz, 23; and Robert Lee "Bo" Benac, 28 — could be seen joking and laughing as the shark slammed into the waters off Egmont Key on June 26.

But after their arrests on Tuesday, state wildlife officials say they were relieved the case resulted in criminal charges. It also reignited the discussion of how severely those found guilty of abusing animals should be punished.

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"We know that these individuals are likely to have violence in other parts of their life, not just animals, so we do take it seriously," said Kate MacFall, state director for the Humane Society of the United States.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Shark-dragging video case results in three arrests

The arrests also brought praise from Gov. Rick Scott, who said in a statement that he was "outraged by the sickening video of a shark being horribly abused earlier this year."

MacFall said when the video went viral, she got calls from people all over the country who were "just horrified."

She added that this kind of violence to animals "is against society's values today" and is "not accepted."

Their arrests were reminiscent of the August 2016 incident in which Joseph Corrao was charged in the death of a flamingo named Pinky at Busch Gardens.

Corrao, of Orlando, was arrested on a charge of aggravated animal cruelty, a third-degree felony, after Tampa police said he grabbed Pinky from an enclosure and threw her to the ground in August 2016.

She was severely injured, and later euthanized. A judge deemed him to be "unstable," and ordered him to undergo in-home competency training before the animal cruelty case could continue.

Wenzel and Benac each face two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty and one misdemeanor for using an illegal method to catch a shark. The felony counts are each punishable by up to five years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine, although any punishment will likely be less than that maximum. Heintz faces just the two felony charges.

Some state wildlife officials said they hope Tuesday's arrests will begin a shift in the animal cruelty laws in Florida to hand harsher sentences to offenders.

RELATED: After shark video arrest, 5 other instances where trouble followed social media posts

Preston Robertson, vice president of Florida Wildlife Federation, said he personally "would like to see the fines made mandatory and increased across the board for recreational use of our fish and wildlife."

That action could come in a few weeks when the Florida Legislature convenes for the 2018 session. It will consider Ponce's Law, which increases the penalties for animal cruelty. Filed by state Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, HB 473 allows judges more discretion to sentence animal cruelty offenders to prison and prohibiting those convicted of animal cruelty from owning or having custody of any animal. Its companion in the Senate is SB 952.

MacFall warned that even though passage of the bill "would be a step forward," enforcement still could prove to be difficult.

RELATED: Pinky the flamingo's death raises the question: How should animal abusers be punished?

"While there still is work to be done, some progress has certainly been made on education and enforcement," MacFall wrote in an email. "The (Humane Society) works with local law enforcement agencies to offer free workshops on animal cruelty, neglect and animal fighting."

But while both MacFall and Robertson say are hopeful that the Legislature will enact the harsher penalties, they applauded the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's nearly five-month investigation and resulting arrests.

"I know this was a big complicated case and we are pleased and truly applaud [FWC's] commitment to these cases," MacFall said.

Added Robertson: "We are very pleased that the state attorney's office and FWC brought charges against these people and hope that they get the sanction that they deserve."

Contact TyLisa C. Johnson at tyjohnson@tampabay.com. Follow @tylisajohnson.

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