By Adrian Teran Tapia and Mario Sequeira Quesada
Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. — Every state in America, and at least nine countries. That is how far the story of Tommie, a dog tied to a pole and set on fire, traveled as people rallied for his survival and donated money for his treatment. Tommie suffered burns on 40 percent of his body after he was doused in an accelerant and set on fire in a Richmond park. Despite round-the-clock care, he died five days after rescue.
If the dog had survived the attack, under current law the person responsible could have faced only a Class 1 misdemeanor charge punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a fine up to $2,500.
That’s why the crowd following Tommie’s story turned its attention to SB 1604, introduced by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach. The bill would increase the penalty for animal abuse from a misdemeanor to a Class 6 felony, which can draw up to five years in prison.
Five days after Tommie’s death, the House passed the bill unanimously Wednesday. It cleared the Senate unanimously on Feb. 5.
Under current law, a person can only be charged with a felony if the cat or dog dies. DeSteph’s bill would make the penalty of torturing a cat or dog a Class 6 felony regardless of whether the animal survives. DeSteph said he introduced the bill after a dog named Sugar was attacked by her owner with a machete. Because the dog did not die, the owner was only charged with a misdemeanor. DeSteph said that the act alone should warrant the felony charge, not the outcome of it.
“People who torture a dog, or any animal like this, their next step is to go after a human,” DeSteph said. “They’re truly a threat to public safety and to society and should be dealt with severely.”
House co-sponsor Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, said Tommie’s story helped the bill gain more support. She said some members of the Animal Welfare Caucus even suggested the legislation be named “Tommie’s Bill.”
Robert Leinberger is an animal control supervisor with Richmond Animal Care and Control, the city shelter that led Tommie’s rescue and recovery efforts. He said donations poured in from around the world for Tommie, which boosted the reward to $25,000 to help find and convict his attacker, who is still at large.
Tabitha Treloar, with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said SB 1604 empowers the SPCA’s mission to protect more animals.
“There is a big gap in the current law. It does not consider the advances of veterinary medicine,” Treloar said.
Treloar said that veterinarians can often save animals from critical injuries, which helps the attacker avoid felony charges. That could have happened in Tommie’s case.
“It was sickening what happened to him,” she said. “The bill is a big step that I think the commonwealth can take to demonstrate that this type of cruelty will not be tolerated.”
Leinberger, who has worked in animal control for 27 years, called Tommie’s case “by far one of the worst cases of cruelty” he had ever seen. “What is really scary is what will be next, or even worse — who will be next.”
He encouraged people to report the first sign of cruelty.
“If you even think of mistreating an animal, don’t,” Leinberger said, adding that there are many ways to find a pet a new and safe home.
Shaun McCracken agreed. She rescued her 7-year-old dog Pippin, who was suffering from a severe joint illness.
“The SPCA changed my life,” the theater professor said at a recent “Dog Kissing Booth” fundraiser. “She is better because of the care, time and effort they put in her.”
McCracken said Tommie’s case really affected her and that something must be done to avoid future tragedies.
“I think this person should never be allowed near any animal, or any human being,” she said.
DeSteph said that party lines don’t and shouldn’t matter when it comes to animal welfare legislation. “We have great laws in place regarding animal protection, but I think this is one that had gaps to fill.”
RACC receives one or two cases of negligent animal cruelty a week, Leinberger said. He hopes the passage of SB 1604 will help reduce the number of attacks.
“It has been a roller coaster of emotions, almost every single emotion you can think of,” he said.
More than 6,000 people signed up to attend a memorial service for Tommie. As a result, RACC has been holding open houses for members of the public to pay their respects to the dog.
An open house will be held 2-7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and noon-5 p.m. on Saturday at the city shelter, 1600 Chamberlayne Ave.
Anyone with information about the crime can contact Metro Richmond Crime Stoppers at 804- 780-1000.