In 2011, when Mississippi finally enacted a law to make animal cruelty a felony offense, the law’s chief proponent in the Legislature, Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, said he knew the law wasn’t strong enough, but it was a start.

It took nine years and a different legislative champion to get the law right, or at least close to it. But Mississippi now has a law that should better protect cats and dogs from those who would “torture, mutilate, maim, burn, starve to death, crush, disfigure, drown, suffocate or impale” them.

In the previous law, such reprehensible conduct got close to a first pass. Malicious maltreatment of dogs and cats was considered only a misdemeanor on the first offense. The perpetrator had to be caught doing it a second time for the felony provision of the statute to kick in.

Under Senate Bill 2658, which took effect with Gov. Tate Reeves’ signing of the bill two weeks ago, committing willful, malicious injury to a dog or cat is a felony on the first offense. Conviction carries a fine of up to $5,000 and up to five years in prison. If it happens again, the possible punishment doubles on the fine and quadruples on the prison time.

There are two reasons why this tougher law is important. First, it establishes that torture of defenseless pets is not going to be tolerated. Second, it recognizes that animal cruelty doesn’t usually stop there. People who will intentionally inflict pain, up to the point of death, on a dog or cat will probably graduate to doing the same to children or spouses, if they haven’t already.

Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, deserves a lot of credit for pushing persistently to strengthen the law and overcoming years of resistance in the Legislature.

The only thing that might make this better is to extend the protection to other pets and to some other domesticated animals, such as horses.

Fear by the farming industry that animal cruelty laws are a backdoor attempt by zealots to heavily restrict the raising of livestock was a major reason why Mississippi was one of the last states to adopt a felony statute. Limiting the law to dogs and cats was necessary to get past that resistance.

There should be some way to protect poultry, pork and beef producers while also discouraging cruelty to animals not raised for human consumption. But that’s a battle for another day. For now, be happy for the cats and dogs.

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