COLUMBUS, Ohio - NewsChannel5 investigators have found Ohio's animal protections laws are more lenient than most U.S. states.
In Ohio, animal cruelty is a second degree misdemeanor for a first offense. In 44 other U.S. states, animal cruelty is a felony.
"It seems like you can do horrific things to animals and you're only going to be met with a slap on the wrist," said Karen Minton, the Ohio state director of the Humane Society of the United States.
The Humane Society of the United States releases a yearly "Humane State Ranking" report assessing states' animal protection laws. Ohio ranked 45 in 2010. The ranking was changed to 36 in 2011, after Ohio's Livestock Care Standards Board adopted new rules to protect farm animals.
Click here to look at the Humane Society's animal protection rankings: http://on.wews.com/Ju63TL
Another animal rights group, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, ranks Ohio 31st. The state's lack of felony legislation for animal cruelty cases is a "substantial flaw" in the law, according to Scott Heiser, the senior attorney and criminal justice program director for the ALDF. Heiser said animal cruelty laws are a large part of the reason Ohio is ranked 31.
Heiser said Idaho, North Dakota and South Dakota have no animal cruelty statutes. In Iowa, Mississippi and Ohio, a second offense for animal cruelty is a felony. A first offense is a misdemeanor, no matter the severity of the allegations of cruelty.
Click here to look at the Animal League Defense Fund's animal protection rankings (PDF): http://on.wews.com/KKqds3
A legislative proposal known as Nitro's Law has given animal activists hope. The law is named after a Rottweiler that was starved to death by a Youngstown kennel owner in 2008. The bill would make animal cruelty a fifth degree felony, but only for kennel owners and employees who are accused of abusing animals. An Ohio Senate committee will vote on Nitro's Law May 14. The law passed the Ohio House of Representatives 79-9 in February.
Supporters and opponents voiced their opinions about Nitro's law during a hearing in the Ohio Senate Agriculture, Environment & Natural Resources Committee Tuesday.
"I can go over to my next door neighbor and hit him with a shovel and I'll get a felonious assault felony charge. If I go over and kill his dog, I'm going to get a misdemeanor charge. It's ridiculous," said Mike Smeck, a Nitro's law supporter who was recently interviewed about the law.
Opponents said Ohio's animal protection laws are sufficient.
"No one wants to be overly lenient for crime," said Ohio Rep. Anthony DeVitis (R-Akron). He voted against Nitro's law. "I think it's important that we, for the most part, give people a chance."
He said making animal cruelty a felony on a second offense is fair.
"I don't think that's overly lenient," said DeVitis. "It's not about compassion as much as it is about people and whether or not punishment is appropriate."
The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation also opposes harsher punishment for animal cruelty in Ohio. Its members "believe in the proper treatment of all animals, but are opposed to legislation that would treat crimes against animals more severely than crimes against people," according to Joe Cornely, the OFBF's senior director for corporate communications.
Stories about animal abuse made headlines in Ohio this spring. In Toledo, Howard Davis, 53, entered no contest pleas to charges alleging he left six puppies zipped up in a suitcase in an alley.
In Ashtabula County, Walter Pace, 66, is accused of shooting his neighbor's 4-year-old St. Bernard mix and beagle puppy for no apparent reason.
In Akron, Brandi Tomko, 35, is facing a 33-count indictment related to accusations that she pretended to be a veterinarian at C&D Animal Hospital on 1474 Brittain Road.
Kenny Reymnann said his dog, Charlie, died after being in Tomko's care. He said Ohio should strengthen animal abuse laws to show the state does not tolerate any form of animal cruelty.
"I don't know what the excuse is for not changing the law and changing it swiftly. It should happen now," he said.
Charlie was more than a pet to Reymann.
"He was my best friend. I've never been married. I don't have any kids so I consider my dogs my kids," he said.
Reymann said he struggles to comprehend why Charlie's death is not considered a serious crime. "In Ohio, pets are just property," he said.