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Forrest vs. The State of Ohio

After a near-fatal shooting, one dog joins the fight against Ohio's antiquated animal protection laws

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When Clements was found in possession of one round of .357-caliber ammo and two rounds of .22-caliber ammo following the shooting, his crime was cast against the backdrop of a federal justice system cracking down on felons bearing arms. The county charges were dismissed, Clements' future took on a bleaker tone and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrested the man on a quiet street in Cleveland.

In court, he shared a quick glance with Forrest's new owners and a slough of maybe a dozen or so of Forrest's supporters. He pleaded not guilty to the lone charge.

The U.S. Attorney's office in the Northern District of Ohio seeks out felons brandishing weapons and files these charges often - 176 times last year with an average sentence of six years in prison, in fact. And all that, of course, is an entirely separate matter.

The question many are asking themselves now is how Forrest and the growing public awareness surrounding his life can translate into action at the Statehouse and beyond.

Forrest's story, now ostensibly divorced from The United States of America v. Raymone Clements, is only one element in a much broader problem with Ohio's animal cruelty laws.

Over the years, many have called for tighter restrictions and stricter punishments. A 2010 law advanced some causes, but animal protection supporters are working to maintain pressure on the General Assembly's rather milquetoast pulse and the state's less than stellar reputation.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, in fact, ranks Ohio 34th in the country in terms of being a protective place for animals to live. ("Thirty-fourth is not good enough. We can do better," Beichler says.) The Humane Society of the United States similarly sticks Ohio with a basement grade, particularly compared to other northern states. Such rankings stem from the availability of felony penalties and increased penalties for repeating offenders, police officers' ability to enforce animal protection laws and more.

Chapter 959 of the Ohio Revised Code delves into the specific policies and punishments surrounding cruelty to animals in this state: To wit, shooting a dog (or otherwise knowingly injuring a "companion animal") is a first-degree misdemeanor.

"I think Forrest's story will kind of propel this story to Columbus," Stone says. "Our goal is for a comprehensive bill."

The previous General Assembly, which wrapped up its session in December, killed or otherwise slept on seven bills related to animal cruelty.

For instance, House Bill 108, known colloquially as Nitro's Law, was an attempt at making animal cruelty at the hands of a kennel owner or employee a felony violation, rather than a misdemeanor. (Nitro was starved to death by a trainer in Youngstown in 2008. Six other dogs died alongside him and 12 other dogs were on the threshold of death when authorities found them. The trainer was arrested on 19 counts of animal cruelty, arraigned on a mere four, and sentenced to a quick four months in prison.)

That bill has died twice now in the Statehouse, following a fate similar to six other bills that languished in legislative limbo during the 129th General Assembly:

Ohio Dog Auctions Act: Ban Ohio puppy mill dog auctions.

House Bill 25: Include "companion animals" in domestic violence and stalking protection orders

House Bill 138: Require a person to file proof of successful completion of training with the county recorder prior to being appointed as a humane society agent

House Bill 289: Make bestiality a fifth-degree felony

House Bill 290: Make an assault against a dog warden, deputy dog warden, humane agent or animal control officer a fifth-degree felony

House Bill 300: Provide protections for search and rescue dogs

"I think that's going to be different in this situation," Stone says, trying to parse out why, after all those attempts, legislation has a tendency to pass into oblivion. She's looking ahead optimistically, though, hoping that Forrest, Nitro and other dogs like Herbie (recently found neglected and abused in Lorain County) can promote widespread knowledge of the state's stunted view toward our pets. Every story is different and every story shines a light on a particular issue that needs tightening up in the Statehouse.

Even with the passage of Nitro's Law - a single, very powerful bill - Forrest's case would not be covered. There are many facets to animal cruelty and the penalties that surround it. Animal protection advocates - and many others who support the movement tacitly - realize that the lens needs to be widened.

"If you put all that together to protect our animals, you're talking about a comprehensive bill that would be broader in scope," Beichler says. She adds that, given the heinous background on Clements' rap sheet, the wellspring of support in the media for Forrest and the fact that this situation took place in a public park of all places... Well, it's a compelling story that has a pendulum of pain and catharsis swinging dramatically at every bend. "All of these ingredients are there. Forrest could truly be a catalyst for change."

State Sen. Shirley Smith now sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee. She's expressed her support for the burgeoning Justice For Forrest campaign and, as such, is poised to direct potential legislation through the legislature.

"I am going to restart the conversation," she promises. With an eye toward promoting healthy farming policies in Ohio, she's hoping to dig into the intersection of our state's Big Ag production and the animals at the foundation of that industry. Following that line, she sees her committee's work intersecting with companion animal advocates like Stone and Beichler. Forrest's story, along with countless examples of animal torture, starvation and hoarding will all roll into Smith's overarching look at agriculture in Ohio: past, present and future.

"I think Forrest is a hero," she says.

Simultaneously, Beichler is joining nearly a dozen other leaders of humane groups and rescue organizations around the state as part of an ad-hoc committee on the direction of this movement. They meet via phone conference weekly to hash out ideas, hopes and visions.

"What is the mission?" Beichler asks... "To bring reform to animal cruelty laws."

In the meantime, Forrest's celebrity is at the very least conjuring increased awareness by the day. A benefit for the dog and the Public Animal Welfare Society of Ohio will be held Feb. 16 at Negative Space Gallery downtown.

Forrest will be there ready to greet his friends. He's feeling much better these days. Stone says he stood on his hind legs for the first time recently, offering hugs and showing off his infectious energy.

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