Death of Tommie the dog shines light on General Assembly’s work to protect pets

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va. — The devastating death of a dog named Tommie, who was tied up and set on fire in a Richmond park, is shedding a light on bills being worked on in the General Assembly. 

Dogs were getting ready for walks with volunteers that recently came in from shelters in rural areas of the Commonwealth — one dog, shaking. 

Robin Starr, the Chief Executive Officer of the Richmond SPCA, says you can tell when some animals haven’t been taken care of in a family home. 

“They’ll often show evidence of flea bites on their ears, they will perhaps have heartworms,” she explained. “They will generally have a bad body score, which means they have been neglected and forced to live outside a great deal of the time.”

About 4,000 animals are taken to the Richmond SPCA annually. Many of the pets are injured or sick. Workers don’t know what happened to them, but there are signs. 

“We have often seen the signs of injuries to their necks,” Starr said, describing what a dog looks like after they’ve been tethered by a rope or chain. “We have even removed horrifyingly embedded collars in their necks.”

Their wounds are not just physical. 

“They also become emotionally damaged,” she explained, “often neurotic because of the lack of stimulation and the lack of companionship.”

There are two bills being worked on that could impact how family pets are treated. One of them can create harsher penalties for people who hurt them, too. 

SB1025, proposed by Sen. Lionell Spruill (D- District 77), changes the minimum required length of a rope or chain used to tether a dog outside. Originally the bill called for a 15 feet minimum, but the House passed an amendment to the Senate bill that would make it 10 feet. This will be hashed out next week before the legislative session ends. This bill also affects the quality of the outdoor shelters provided. 

“Chains or tethers for chained dogs will have to be longer and lighter. Shelters will have to be given protection from extreme weather,” Matthew Gray-Keeling, the Virginia State Director of the Humane Society of the United States, said. “They’ll have to have insulation or bedding, as well as a windbreak in cold weather. In the heat of the summer, they’ll have to be shaded from the sun.’

This bill doesn’t apply to agricultural animals. 

There’s a heightened awareness about the care for pets, after a dog was found tied up to a pole in a park engulfed in flames earlier this week. Firefighters worked to put out the flames, but the dog was severely burned. Richmond Animal Care and Control cared for the dog, they named Tommie. He died this morning. 

Sen. Spruill said on the phone that Tommie’s death has shown lawmakers the pain pets can go through, and thinks they’ll back his bill because of it. 

The way the law is written now in Virginia, someone can only be charged with a felony if the animal they hurt died. Gray-Keeling says veterinary care has “changed dramatically” since this law was first drafted. So, animals are surviving while their perpetrators are walking away. 

“Shelters are trying very hard to save them even in cases of egregious cruelty,” Matthew Gray-Keeling, the Virginia State Director of the Humane Society of the United States, said. 

“We have so many shelters that have a serious commitment to life-saving that didn’t exist when our felony cruelty first past decades ago.” 

SB1604, proposed by Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-District 8), would make it a Class 6 felony if someone were to maim, mutilate or kill a dog or cat. The bill passed the Senate and is being reviewed by the House.  

Advocates say this change in the law will bring justice for injured pets, and in the long run, make sure they’re in loving homes. 

“They do recover from these injuries,” Starr said. “They can have a wonderful life ahead of them.”

Both bills are still moving through the legislative process. We’ll keep you updated on where they stand before session ends next week. 

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