An Ephrata man pleaded guilty last week to two counts of animal cruelty after beating a horse that collapsed while pulling a cart. He paid a fine. The owner of a puppy named Libre, found barely alive on a Lancaster County farm last month, was charged with a summary offense, the maximum under the current statute. These cases have revealed both the inconsistencies in animal cruelty investigations and the inadequate consequences for offenders. Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman has announced that police departments and not animal control officers will now handle animal cruelty investigations in Lancaster County.

The horse collapsed after pulling a cartload of watermelons; the load was simply too heavy.

A man walked around the horse, attempted to pull it by the neck to its feet. But the horse was too weak. As the animal struggled for breath, witnesses saw the man kick the horse in the abdomen and punch it in the head, as it lay dying. The horse was later euthanized.

The animal was worked to death. Let’s not try to whitewash what we know.

A video of the incident, taken by a passing motorist and later posted online, sparked local and national outrage.

One can only imagine what we never saw: the horse’s day-to-day life, how it struggled before it collapsed.

The man in the video, 20-year-old Marvin Sensenig of Ephrata, pleaded guilty to animal cruelty and paid about $750 in fines.

An animal is not a human being, nor is it a front-end loader or backhoe. But when you hear the comments from Sensenig’s father, it’s pretty clear that a $750 fine will have little deterrent effect on Sensenig’s farm or, quite possibly, anywhere else.

“We disagree with the charges (but) we will accept the charges if that will make anyone feel better,” John Sensenig told LNP. “A passerby is making a lot out of a little and has absolutely no knowledge of horses.”

You don’t have to be an equine expert to know that working a horse until it collapses and beating it as it lay gasping for air is unacceptable behavior.

At a press conference last week, Stedman said current penalties for animal cruelty are “insufficient” and called for change. We agree wholeheartedly. (In response to Libre’s case, state Sen. Richard Alloway II, a Republican from Franklin County, said he would work on legislation to increase penalties for animal cruelty.  Republican state Rep. Keith Greiner, of Upper Leacock Township,  already has introduced a bill that would raise the minimum fine from $50 to $250  for an animal cruelty summary offense.)

We applaud Stedman for taking the bold step of seeking court approval to suspend the appointment of the local animal cruelty officer who chose not to prosecute the breeder in the Libre case. We also commend Stedman for shifting the responsibility for investigating animal cruelty cases to the local police.

We understand that some animals, horses and otherwise, are born and bred for work. Even so, they can and must still be treated humanely. When they are not, aggressive investigation and prosecution are appropriate.

But there are issues other than law enforcement at play here.

Marvin Sensenig is not Amish but an Old Order Mennonite. There are many similarities. Both are Plain sects.

“They don’t have a sentimental view of animals or nature,” said Steven Nolt on WITF’s “Smart Talk.” Nolt is a senior scholar for Anabaptist and Pietist studies and a professor at Elizabethtown College

“They have pets that they love and care about but animals are also part of the world at work. Ideas about animals are not sentimentalized. They are fairly realistic. To work a horse is not being cruel.”

There is a line that separates practicality and cruelty and we believe the vast majority of Amish and Mennonite farmers see and respect that line.

But we are seeing a disturbing pattern of cruelty, especially as puppy mills continue to operate virtually unabated.

In July, we learned about Libre after a delivery man saw the puppy lying unresponsive in a pen. Libre was emaciated, dehydrated and barely breathing.

And there is yet another dimension to this issue.

Whether it’s within the Amish or Mennonite communities or in the mainstream of society, intentional violence against animals is often indicative of a broader problem.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, more than 71 percent of women entering domestic violence shelters report that their partners abused or killed a family pet.

Long before the modern research, French-German philosopher and physician Albert Schweitzer understood the relationship between humans and animals as a necessary characteristic of the human condition.

“Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.” he said.

Stiffer penalties for animal cruelty are a necessity and can only enhance deterrence.

But compassion cannot be legislated. We’ll have to plunge deeper for a more lasting solution.

We’ve certainly seen enough recently to know the exploration is long overdue.

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