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Sioux Falls dog killing case renews animal cruelty debate

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news Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

SIOUX FALLS (AP) -- The arrest of an 18-year-old Sioux Falls resident for allegedly killing his mother's dog is reviving debate about whether South Dakota needs a stronger penalty for animal cruelty.

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Injuring or killing an animal and inhumane treatment of animals are misdemeanor counts in South Dakota, and the maximum penalty is a year in jail. The lack of felony penalties makes it "barely even illegal" to mistreat animals in the state, activist Jeni McNamara told the media.

"It's less illegal than drunk driving," she said.

Marcelo Vargas, who his mother says is developmentally disabled, is accused of intentionally beating her Chihuahua to death on Monday night while she was in the hospital and her husband was at work. Vargas allegedly told police officers and his mother that the dog had tried to bite him.

Judge Natalie Damgaard released Vargas from custody Tuesday without requiring the posting of a bond, on the condition that he show up at his court hearings.

The Sioux Falls case follows another high-profile dog killing in South Dakota last year, when Robert Kyte, of Burbank, killed his neighbor's German shorthair pointer with a hammer. The dog's owners, Shayne and Kim Ludwig, wanted Kyte charged with a felony. He eventually was -- first-degree intentional damage to property -- because the dog was valued at more than $1,000.

"The only reason that was possible was because that was a prize hunting dog," McNamara said. "Most dogs aren't worth that much."

Kyte reached a plea agreement with prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to reduced misdemeanor charges. He was given a 60-day suspended jail sentence, and ordered to pay nearly $400 in fines and fees and $2,000 in restitution.

In 2010, then-Rep. Joni Cutler introduced a bill in the South Dakota Legislature that would have created a felony class of animal cruelty laws. She introduced the bill at the request of several of her constituents and eventually voted against it, citing the possibility of unintended consequences. Agriculture interests lobbied against the bill, saying it could be used to punish farmers.

Cutler now says there ought to be a way to write a law that would encompass animal cruelty without endangering agricultural activities. However, national animal rights organizations often clash with agriculture groups when debate over felony penalties arises in the state, she said.

"We should be able to act on behalf of our constituents, but the larger debate takes over," Cutler said. "Even a very focused bill gets lost in it."

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