President Donald Trump has signed into law a new federal ban on animal cruelty, called the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act.
The bipartisan bill, which passed the House and Senate this year, will outlaw purposeful crushing, burning, drowning, suffocation, impalement or other violence causing "serious bodily injury" to animals. Violations could result in a fine and up to seven years' imprisonment.
U.S. Reps. Cindy Axne, Dave Loebsack and Abby Finkenauer of Iowa all cosponsored the bill. At the state level, local legislators said Iowa law on abuse of domestic animals remains lax, but hope that will change.
Advocates say the PACT Act, which was pushed through the Senate by lead sponsors Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., will fill crucial gaps in national law, which bans animal fighting as well as the making and sharing of videos that show the kind of abuse the PACT Act would criminalize. All states have provisions against animal cruelty, said Kitty Block, president of the Humane Society of the United States, but without a federal ban, it's hard to prosecute cases that span different jurisdictions or that occur in airports, military bases and other places under federal purview.
The bipartisan act, introduced by House Reps. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., and Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., builds on a 2010 law that targets videos depicting animal cruelty, spurred by disgust over a gruesome genre of "crush" videos often showing small creatures being stomped under a woman's shoe.
Block says videos capturing such torture needed to be addressed at the federal level because content shared online transcends state boundaries. But no national law targets the acts behind the recordings - despite previous congressional efforts with widespread support.
The PACT Act has been cheered not only by animal welfare groups but also by many members of law enforcement. Leaders of groups such as the Fraternal Order of Police and the Major County Sheriffs of America have expressed support for the law.
"And animal lovers everywhere know this is simply the right thing to do," Deutch said in a statement.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund called the PACT Act a good step, but it noted that there could be loopholes. For example, the PACT Act does not necessarily cover actions taken against an animal that cause less than "serious bodily harm," which could mean that hitting or punching an animal might not meet the law's definition of cruelty, according to the ALDF.
Pottawattamie County Attorney Matt Wilber said the law wouldn't have come into play in one of the more high-profile recent local animal abuse and neglect cases in the area, regarding Young Gunz kennel out of Hancock.
Dustin Young owned a hunting dog training company where dozens of dead dogs were found in May of 2018. A number of other dogs turned up missing in the case. Facing a maximum of three years in jail, Young was sentenced to 30 days in jail, a work release program and probation. Of the 36 counts he faced, all but 12 were dismissed.
Though some of the dog owners affected by the case were out of state, Wilber said in his understanding of the law it "does not seem like it would've applied."
But Wilber would like to see changes to state law regarding animal abuse and neglect.
After Young's sentencing in February - where a number of dog owners voiced displeasure at what they deemed a lax sentencing - Wilber said, "Iowa is one of the worst states in terms of animal abuse charges."
"We don't have a lot of tools in the toolbox for cases like this," he said at the time, noting the penalties for animal cruelty are usually fines and rarely involve terms of jail. "Right now, our toolbox has a screwdriver - it would be nice to have a wrench and a hammer."
Sen. Dan Dawson, a Republican who represents most of Council Bluffs in the Iowa Legislature, said Iowa is one of two states that doesn't have a felony charge on the books for animal cruelty. The highest possible charge is an aggravated misdemeanor, and even for that charge, the elements to prove the crime are so narrow they're tough to meet.
Both Dawson and Democrat Rep. Charlie McConkey, who represents northwest Council Bluffs and Carter Lake, said they hope the legislature will finally take action in the 2020 session after years of seeing bills stall out in committee, blocked from being voted on by the full House and Senate.
"I have a big concern about it. We need to do something about it," McConkey said, noting illegal puppy mills operating without fear of major consequences are giving Iowa a black eye.
McConkey said a bill he introduced in the 2018 session went nowhere.
But a different bill the Legislature is set to debate when the session convenes in January, House File 737, would put felony charges for animal torture on the books for Iowa Code 717B, which deals with domestic animals like cats and dogs.
The bill would have exemptions for humane euthanasia, euthanasia via court order, hunting wild animals, protection from injury and property damage and research.
"A lot of groups came together and are supporting that bill," Dawson said, who stressed the bill would make law changes regarding domestic animals and not regarding livestock, which is covered by Iowa Code 717A.
That distinction is important, he said.
"There's certainly a divide between urban and rural legislators on those bills," Dawson said.
The senator said the concern from the rural and agriculture side is affects on laws regarding livestock.
He said that while House File 737 wouldn't affect that realm, farmers and some of the groups in favor of the bill have rocky relationships, to say the least.
"Some of these guys are rightfully concerned that the same groups supporting domestic animal protections are the same they've had negative experiences with on the ag side," Dawson said. "There's a lack of trust there."
But, "In my mind, legally, this is all separate," Dawson said.
"The bills I've put forward are for canines and felines. No way could it be confused for ag production," McConkey said. "The people that are doing things right, I don't want legislation to hurt their business," McConkey said of hobby breeders that are humane with their animals.
Dawson said that after years of bills dying before reaching the full Senate or House he expects animal cruelty laws to come to the forefront in 2020.
"I think this year, this issue will come to a head," he said. "The Iowa Legislature will gavel in the 2020 session on Jan. 13.
-- Hannah Knowles and Katie Mettler of The Washington Post contributed to this report.