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Change in animal-cruelty law sought


Animal rights activists and law enforcement officials urged a Maryland House panel yesterday to pass legislation that would close a loophole in the law that allowed an Edgewater jogger who forcefully kicked a nipping poodle to go uncharged.

The bill, drafted by Del. Murray D. Levy, a Charles County Democrat, would alter a state law so that anyone who inflicts "unnecessary pain or suffering" on an animal could be charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty.

Under current law, a misdemeanor charge can be brought only against an animal's owner or caretaker. A separate felony offense - which is not limited to owners and caretakers - is for anyone who abuses, mutilates or tortures an animal.

"Had this law been in effect we would have asked Animal Control to issue a citation" to the jogger, William M. Katcef, an Anne Arundel County prosecutor, said at yesterday's hearing.

The issue drew attention after a toy poodle named Jacquelyn escaped from her owner's garage and chased a jogger, nipping at his heels. Police said the jogger kicked the poodle twice, sending it into the road. The dog was hospitalized for 4 1/2 days and required about $3,000 in medical care.

Prosecutors have said they could not charge the jogger with a misdemeanor under state law and that the case didn't rise to the level of a felony. Police have not identified the jogger.

Some delegates worried that the new law might put an animal's rights over a person's right to self-defense.

"If an animal attacks you, how far can you go?" asked Del. Darryl A. Kelley, a Prince George's County Democrat. "Is it that the first kick was justifiable but not the second and third kicks?"

"Are we going to calibrate kicks?" asked Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Assistant Attorney General Katheryn M. Rowe said in a letter that the legislation would not preclude people from defending themselves from attacking animals. Katcef, in his testimony, also said the bill leaves a clear line between defensive action and offensive assaults on an animal.

C. Edward Tucker, the head of animal services in Charles County, testified that on numerous occasions he has wanted to charge some with an animal cruelty offense but couldn't.

Children taunt neighborhood dogs, ex-spouses kick former family pets in arguments, angry neighbors exact revenge by heaving poisoned meat over property lines to tempt their foes' dogs, he said. There was nobody at the hearing representing joggers or bicyclists - two groups of people who often have run-ins with dogs. Baltimore Spokes, a cycling advocacy organization, has not taken a position on the proposed change, but some members want to know that state laws protect cyclists as well as animals, the group's president said.

"How responsible can you make somebody who has an animal forced upon him?" said Barry Childress, president of the organization.

An identical bill sailed through the committee last year and was passed in the House but languished in the Senate.

This year, after the poodle episode, Levy believes the bill has more momentum. "Our hearing last year lasted four minutes, and nobody asked a question," he said.

The committee did not vote on the measure yesterday.

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