A Lawrence man charged with killing Melvin the lop-eared bunny is the first person to be prosecuted in Douglas County under a new state law that makes animal cruelty a felony.
Dist. Atty. Charles Branson's office on Friday filed a felony animal cruelty charge against Lawrence resident Austin Newport, who's charged with killing his and his roommate's pet rabbit July 27 by putting it in a plastic bag and trying to break its neck.
Prior to July 1, the crime of cruelty to animals was classified only as a misdemeanor. But an outcry about some high-profile animal cruelty cases - including the beating and burning of Scruffy the terrier in 1997 in Kansas City, Kan., and the case of a puppy found last year in a Wichita trash bin with bound feet, a broken leg and chemical burns - spurred the Legislature to toughen the penalties.
Now, it can be charged as a felony when prosecutors believe the person "intentionally and maliciously" killed, injured, maimed, tortured, burned or mutilated an animal. It carries a minimum 30-day jail sentence and $500 fine, as well as a mandatory psychological evaluation and anger management program.
Newport's explanation, according to a police report, was that he didn't think he could care for the rabbit any more and planned to eat it. He said in an interview that he wasn't acting maliciously and that the animal died the next day after a heart attack.
"I did mess up, I will admit that, but I was trying to do the right thing," he said. "I feel horrible."
More on animal cruelty
- 6News video: Animal-cruelty law to be tested
- On the street: What do you think the penalty for animal cruelty should be?
- Lawrence Humane Society reiterates stance against pit bull ban (08-20-06)
- Senate approves cruelty to animals bill (02-24-06)
- Public outcry over animal-cruelty cases growing (11-17-05)
His former roommate, Jamie Nixon, who reported the incident to police, said she doesn't accept his explanation. She said she approves of the tougher animal cruelty law.
"It seems like for something that has no ability to stand up for itself, we need to do what we can," she said.
The law makes a number of exceptions, including the killing of animals under normal veterinary practices, for research experiments or in authorized hunting or trapping. It also makes an exception for "normal or accepted practices of animal husbandry," including practices for slaughtering farm animals for food.
"Based on what we've got here, we don't believe it fits in those definitions," Branson said.
Even though animal cruelty wasn't a felony until this year, in the past offenders still could face jail time. For example, a man convicted of misdemeanor animal cruelty for throwing a pet rabbit off a balcony in September 2005 at a Lawrence apartment complex eventually served a 20-day jail term, according to city prosecutor Jerry Little.