Animals trust us, it's our job to protect them from evil abusers
Stormont has finally listened to public opinion and increased sentences for the thugs who torture defenceless animals. But more still needs to be done to bring offenders to book, says Suzanne Breen.
They were the face of evil - Jeremiah Kirkwood and his sadistic sons Christopher and Wayne. They came to notoriety when police uncovered their house of horrors in Island Street in east Belfast.
Cats were locked in cages, then thrown to fighting dogs to maul. Wounded dogs were also found. The Kirkwoods confessed to police after officers discovered mobile phone footage showing cats and badgers being ripped apart while onlookers laughed and jeered.
In one video a terrified cat runs up a tree in a forlorn attempt to secure safety. A thug then shakes the branches until the poor animal tumbles into the jaws of two dogs waiting to tear it apart.
For me, prison was too good for them. I can think of far more basic and immediate punishments for those who inflict violence on defenceless creatures.
And yet the Kirkwoods weren't even sent to jail. The twisted trio were handed suspended sentences by Judge Donna McColgan in March 2014.
The scenes as they walked free from court said it all. Their smirking supporters cheered and raised their fists in the air. They had every reason to celebrate. In the public's eyes this was barely a slap across the wrists for men guilty of such shocking savagery.
The Kirkwoods were banned from keeping animals for 10 years. A life prohibition would have been fitting. In response to the public and political outrage that the sentence provoked, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) said he was legally powerless to act.
The feeling right across our normally divided community was that things had to change. And, two years later, thankfully that is about to happen.
The DPP will soon be able to refer unduly lenient sentences to the Court of Appeal. And other amendments to the Justice Bill mean Northern Ireland will have tougher penalties for animal cruelty than anywhere else in the UK or Ireland.
The maximum sentence available for cases heard in Magistrates Courts will increase from six to 12 months, with the maximum fine rising from £5,000 to £20,000.
In Crown Courts, where more serious cases will be heard, the maximum sentence will increase from two to five years.
For once Stormont can be proud of delivering what people on the ground want - although some of us may feel that a zero tolerance policy on animal abuse should mean even longer sentences.
But there is no denying the commitment of local politicians on animal cruelty issues. From the DUP's Jim Wells (below) and Peter Weir, to Alliance's Chris Lyttle and the Greens' Steven Agnew, a rainbow coalition of MLAs has championed this cause.
For me, an animal abuser is on the same level as a sex offender. Animals are totally at our mercy. Like children, their very vulnerability means they deserve our utmost protection.
Those who hurt an animal haven't just made a mistake or experienced a moment of madness. Animal cruelty reflects something very wrong deep inside a person.
Yet the availability of stiffer sentences doesn't by itself solve the problem of animal abuse. The courts have to be willing to impose these sentences.
Responding at the time to the suspended sentence in the Kirkwood case, Detective Inspector Pete Mullan expressed his disappointment and pointed out: "This type of crime can receive a custodial sentence of up to two years."
The case that really catapulted the issue of animal cruelty into the spotlight in Northern Ireland was that of Cody, the dog doused in lighter fluid and set on fire.
It's hard to look at pictures of the border collie. Huge patches of her body are red and raw, and her ribs and joints can be seen through her charred flesh.
So horrific were Cody's injuries that, when she came limping home across fields in Maghaberry, Co Antrim, her owners didn't recognise her.
If it breaks our hearts as strangers to see the animal in that state, then what it was like for the Agnews, who knew and loved her? Imagine the trauma caused to the children - especially Jake, who was only six years old - seeing their beloved family pet like that.
Two weeks after the attack vets told the family that Cody would never recover and must be put down. In October 2014 Andrew Richard Stewart, from Moira, was jailed for 10 months for what he did to Cody. It was the first known custodial sentence for animal cruelty in Northern Ireland.
Last August 23-year-old Aleisha McLaverty, from Antrim, pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges. She admitted leaving a dog to starve to death in an empty property. The five-year-old Labrador was found hanging upside down from a blind cord, with maggots in its mouth and eyes.
So emaciated was the poor creature that I'd hesitate to call it a dog. It was a bag of bones encased in black fur. It died of hunger and thirst. So desperate was the animal that it drank the house's toilet bowl dry.
A post-mortem examination revealed that the dog, in its death throes, had likely tried to jump through a window in a last gasp bid to escape from the house, but had become entangled in a blind. McLaverty was given a two-month sentence, suspended for two years, by Antrim Magistrates Court.
There was a huge outcry locally and Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council, which had taken the case, expressed its disappointment.
But it's not just sentencing in such cases which should be scrutinised. The authorities must be given the resources to pursue and prosecute offenders in the first place. Some of the incidents that animal charities highlight, which haven't made it anywhere near court, are shocking. An abandoned dog left for dead down an eight-foot manhole for three days in the summer heat in west Belfast. The cuts to Kim's head led vets to believe she had been attacked with bricks.
Four horses discovered standing in pools of blood from leg wounds by a mother and her children walking on Divis Mountain. The most badly injured had an eye missing.
The greyhound dumped by the roadside in Newtownabbey with his ears chopped off. The 18-month-old animal was a former racing dog, abandoned and mutilated to prevent its owners being traced by the identifying ear tattoos.
The perpetrators of these evil acts have friends and family who learn what they've done, but cover for them. These people need to find their conscience.
Animals trust us. They don't recognise us as predators who could inflict evil. We must step up to the plate and stop letting them down.