Published Tuesday, 25 September 2012
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Highlighting the introduction of stiffer pledges under the Welfare of Animals Act 2011, the Sinn Féin Minister said she was "totally committed to protecting and safeguarding animal welfare."
Anyone found guilty of such offences now faces two years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. The court can also disqualify any person convicted of an animal welfare offence from keeping an animal.
In the past, those convicted faced 3 months' imprisonment and/or a £5,000 fine.
The Minister's statement came as a result of a debate at Stormont on Monday which was attended by the owners of a pet dog put to sleep following an act of cruelty that stunned the public.
Cody the collie was covered in flammable liquid and set on fire close to her family home in Maghaberry, Co Antrim last month.
Despite efforts to try and save her - Cody lost her fight for life.
She was put down because the burns to her skin were too severe.
Minister O'Neill said: "I believe that the new tough penalties introduced by the 2011 Act will be a strong deterrent to thugs who would carry out such barbaric welfare abuses as the recent Cody case.
"I support the full use of the extended sentences available for serious animal welfare offences to include longer periods of imprisonment to ensure that perpetrators receive a punishment that fits the crime.
"I intend to meet the Minister of Justice to ensure that the Courts are encouraged to make full use of the range of penalties available for animal welfare offences and in horrific cases like the Cody case to apply the maximum penalties possible."
The shocking episode of cruelty has resulted in fresh calls for tougher sentences.
The DUP want greater prison sentences made available to the judiciary.
Paul Givan MLA, Chair of the Justice Committee, told UTV: "If somebody can attack a defenceless animal like this then we have a concern - what could they do to a human being?"
Ms O'Neill highlighted a recent successful prosecution under the 2011 act.
"I am pleased to note that in one of the first cases the PSNI has recently secured a successful prosecution at Downpatrick Magistrates' Court where a defendant was found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering to a dog under the 2011 Act. The defendant was fined £250 and prohibited from keeping animals for five years."
The minister concluded: "The public should be in no doubt that causing unnecessary suffering, including deliberate acts of cruelty to domestic pets, will not be tolerated and that the perpetrators will be punished."
Animal welfare charity, the USPCA, has welcomed the Stormont debate.
David Wilson, of the charity, said: "It's 30 years of Cinderella for animal welfare legislation. 2011 saw the new Animal welfare act. 2012 has saw full implementation. We welcome any moves to increase penalties."
Cody's case is not isolated. A litter of kittens was saved from a group of boys in Londonderry earlier this month, who were trying to set the animals on fire.
It is believed some of the children involved in the incident were as young as nine years old.
Mr Wilson says an increase in penalties in itself is not the answer - but increased enforcement is also needed.
"By increasing penalties [it] doesn't actually improve the situation unless we have adequate and proper enforcement."
He said the USPCA attended a meeting recently with their counterparts in Europe and the Commission where the issue of enforcement is being pressed.
"That would be our message - better enforcement."