Animal activists have pushed for increased protections in the past, but until this past year, the political will wasn't there to move proposed laws out of state legislative committees. That changed during the last session. New laws include increased penalties for animal cruelty and dog fighting. There're new dangerous dog laws and statewide regulations on chaining dogs. Harris County Assistant District Attorney Belinda Smith handles animal cruelty cases.
"Last year we prosecuted over 100 animal cruelty cases. This year unfortunately the number is going to be greater."
And Smith says they expect the numbers to jump again because of the changes in state law. Some of the new laws will allow the DA's office to accept more cases and other changes in law will make it easier to prosecute. Previously, the DA's office could not take any charges of cruelty to feral dog or cat. Under the new law, stray dogs and cats have the same protections as pets. New state laws toughen standards for owners as well.
"The only way I could prosecute an owner for animal cruelty would be if the owner tortured his animal and torture wasn't defined so it was very difficult for me to do my job. So many times we weren't able to accept charges."
Smith says a new law added a new mental state under which charges can be pressed.
"I have to prove that the defendant either intentionally or knowingly engaged in the animal cruelty but now it's enough if I prove that the individual recklessly engaged in animal cruelty."
Another measure, referred to as Lillian's law, changes the responsibility from the victim to the owner in the case of a dog attack.
"In the past we were only able to do was give the person a class C fine, now it's a third degree felony if the dog causes serious bodily injury to the victim in an unprovoked attack."
That carries the possibility of two to ten years. If the victim dies it becomes a second degree felony with the possibility of 20 years in jail.
After some dog attacks in Harris County including one that killed a toddler, Harris County officials came together to study the issue. Smith says one of the results of that is the formation of the Animal Law Section at the Houston Bar Association. Smith expects better cooperation among law enforcement, prosecutors and animal agencies when dealing with these issues. Capella Tucker, Houston Public Radio News.