Ohio lawmakers must restore bite to long-stalled Nitro’s law

Dog lovers throughout Ohio are understandably outraged over the latest in a long and senseless string of shenanigans in the Ohio General Assembly to thwart passage of critical legislation to provide compassion and justice to abused and neglected pets throughout this state.

The latest dirty trick against Nitro’s Law — the Youngstown-inspired bill that would permit cases of animal abuse and neglect to be prosecuted as felonies — came just last week when Republican leaders in the Ohio Senate hijacked both the rightful process and the noble intent of the bill.

First, the Senate chose not to consider Nitro’s Law on its own merits. Instead of taking up House Bill 90, sponsored by state Rep. Ronald Gerberry of Austintown, as a separate autonomous piece of legislation, Senate leaders chose to torpedo its intent, water down its language and toss it into a towering heap of leftovers unrelated to state spending priorities in the mammoth 5,000-page budget bill. If Nitro’s Law is left unchanged and hidden, it then becomes impossible for Ohioans to know which of their leaders endorse appropriately stern punishment for animal abusers — and which do not.

Second, the Senate axed one of the primary foundations of the once sturdy legislation. Specifically, it amended the House bill to delete permission of felony prosecution for those found intentionally neglecting dogs and other animals in the care of kennels.

Provisions on neglect removed

The new budget amendment would allow felony criminal charges only against kennel owners or employees who “knowingly” torture, torment, needlessly mutilate or maim, cruelly beat, poison, needlessly kill or commit an act of cruelty against the companion animal.

But it allows only misdemeanor charges against those who “negligently” do the same or deprive animals of food and water. Gerberry, a valiant crusader for Nitro’s Law over the past five years, argues the weakened legislation would not have protected Rottweiler Nitro and the other dogs left to die in the 2008 case of neglect at the backyard kennel of High Caliber K-9 on Coitsville-Hubbard Road:

“They starved those animals, they dehydrated them. That’s how they killed them. They tortured them by not feeding them,” he said.

Gerberry’s disgust is justified. But fortunately, there is still time to right the Senate’s wrongs.

A joint conference committee has begun work this week to examine differences between the House and Senate versions of the state’s $61 billion budget bill. Conferees can make quick work of restoring the meaty provisions of the original Nitro’s Law. They can do so in the context of the budget bill, or strike it from the misplaced document and schedule a full Senate vote on the original separate bill post haste.

At this point, however, the fate of Nitro’s course remains unclear. Senate President Keith Faber of Celina, R-12th, indicated that the majority caucus was not in favor of the legislation passed by the House, including setting starvation or dehydration of pets as a felony offense.

“The issue is whether or not that ought to be a felony to begin with,” Faber said. “A felony for the intentional act [by] the kennel owners is something that frankly we begrudgingly agreed to. ... There were a bunch of, in the version passed by the House, things that we just couldn’t understand.”

Restoring teeth to the law

Fortunately, however, some Senate Republicans do understand the necessity for tough punishment for animal abuse, torture and neglect. State Sen. Larry Obhof of Medina, R-22nd, said the chamber’s intent was to allow felony charges for all types of intentional cruelty to dogs, including starving or refusing water to boarded animals.

“That was the intention of the Senate,” said Obhof. “If the House would like us to clarify that further, I don’t think there’s going to be any point of disagreement there.”

We are counting on Obhof’s position to hold sway. However, as Nitro’s Law’s long legacy of abuse and neglect in the Legislature indicates, Ohioans cannot be sure. That’s why it’s doubly important for supporters of Nitro’s Law to flood Senate President Faber with appeals to restore the original language to the bill that each and every voting member of the House approved last month.

And why shouldn’t the vote for Nitro’s Law have been unanimous? As the growing Nitrofoundation.com asks on its website dedicated to passage of the bill: Doesn’t the intentional starvation of a dog deserve greater punishment than public intoxication or stealing a candy bar? Sadly in Ohio, all three represent minor misdemeanor offenses.

To end such illogical justice, Ohioans must remain vigilant. Only when the stonewalling ends and the beefy version of Nitro’s Law becomes a part of the state’s criminal code can Ohioans let their guard down. Only then can those same animal lovers guarantee an appropriate memorial for Nitro and ensure needed protections for all of Ohio’s companion animals for years to come.

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