Defending the defenseless is a civic obligation

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 6, 2011

OXFORD — Most mornings in Judge Oscar P. LaBarre’s court were quiet. One-by-one, people accused of public drunkenness, running a red light or fighting would parade before the municipal court bench in Vicksburg, where I was a reporter, and accept their fines.

The atmosphere grew tense, however, when a dispute involved violence to a pet or a child. Police officers who had been milling around the doorways would filter in and line the small courtroom’s walls. In cases of this type, testimony often grew so heated that the officers and their muscles would be needed to keep the litigants apart.


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Because for the most part what small children and pets have in common is that they are defenseless.

There is a visceral cord in the fabric of humanity that is aroused by abuse — especially when the victim can’t fight back.

Evolutionists tell us we’re instinctive creatures. We need food. We need shelter. We need security. We seek those things. It’s not clear — at least to me — why we should care so deeply if someone mercilessly beats a dog or torments a cat. But we do. The proof was on display in Judge Oscar P. LaBarre’s court almost every morning.

For several years in the Mississippi Legislature, there have been proposals to elevate the punishment for animal abuse from its current status, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and up to six months in jail, to a felony, which would make it a penitentiary offense.

For several years, the legislation has failed. Every year, the breakdown has been blamed on a failure to agree on the precise wording to be used. That’s almost always the excuse for what is really a failure of will.

This year, MS-FACT, a grassroots, nonpartisan organization, has engineered a concerted effort to have Mississippi join the majority of states where pet abuse is already a felony. The group is having some success with its more narrowly tailored bill aimed specifically at anyone who maliciously tortures dogs and cats only.

There’s been some vilification in years past.

David Waide, admired and effective during his tenure of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, has been raked over the verbal coals for taking the position that having a misdemeanor law against animal abuse is sufficient.

According to press reports, Waide’s position was grounded in the fear that extreme groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals might try to have people who raise chickens, hogs or cattle indicted and sent to prison. But regardless of the reason, the Farm Bureau has a lot of influence in the halls of the Legislature, so the idea of enhancing the penalty has failed time and again.

Another legitimate question is whether the threat of a big fine or even a prison term would deter those depraved enough to harm pets. MS-FACT says it would, but extreme abuse is already a felony in 46 of the 50 states and there’s no indication that abusers flock to Mississippi because they can torture animals here without facing substantial punishment.

The big picture, though, is that in addition to more practical, enforcement matters, laws make a statement about who we are as a people — what we will tolerate, what we won’t — and to what degree.

The state’s greatest writer, Nobel winner William Faulkner, was an avid hunter. Yet time and again in his short stories and novels, animal abusers — specifically those who used inhumane tactics or even just hunted out of season — were described as the lowest of the low.

And Mark Twain, well before Faulkner, wrote about gaining admission through the Pearly Gates: “Heaven is by favor; if it were by merit your dog would go in and you would stay out.” Twain continued that man “is the only creature that inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain.”

For years, the Mississippi Legislature has been asked to heed the call of humanity’s better angels — to make a stronger statement, even if mostly symbolic, that this state rejects senseless brutality in any form and rejects it strongly.

A well-written statute can make that statement. Defending the defenseless is not some lofty moral calling, it is a basic civic obligation.

Before adjourning or moving on to what they may consider “more pressing matters,” legislators should make abuse of domestic pets — cats and dogs — a felony in Mississippi.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail