Last May, a Virginia man bound the legs of a dog he had adopted off Craigslist, doused her with lighter fluid and burned her alive. Last week, a state court showed no tolerance for the horrific crime – it gave the man a 5-year prison term, the maximum allowed under state law.

Police were led to the previous owner by an implanted microchip, which survived the fire. They soon located the man responsible, Arthur Viera, who provided a series of contradictory statements under questioning before finally admitting guilt.

Examination of the dog’s remains indicated that the fire was the cause of death.

“I just want to say I’m sorry,” Viera told the court, “I can’t explain what I did.”

“Lucky was a living being with emotions, personality, and feelings – not a piece of property,” said the prosecutor, who added that it was hard for him to imagine a worse case of abuse.

The case is unusual because animal abusers in the U.S. are often granted leniency. This time, serious laws were in place, enforcement agencies responded aggressively, and the prosecutors and court system didn’t flinch.

But getting to this point is rare — and the first hurdle is enforcement. The National Sheriff’s Association recently pushed the FBI to create an animal abuse database partly because local enforcement officials often overlook such crimes. Officials now must report animal abuse as a felony in their monthly reports to the bureau, and the Association hopes that will elevate these incidents on local enforcement radar screens. According to the NSA’s deputy director, “[Before] when there was an animal crime, we would just send it over to animal control or ignore it.” But only a third of all U.S. enforcement agencies participate in the program, and the rate of increase has been slow.

The next hurdle is legal code. Animal abuse was not a felony in all 50 states until two years two years ago when North Dakota finally came around. But there is so much further to go. Many very serious abuse cases still fall into the misdemeanor category, in many states, and news stories of “misdemeanor animal cruelty” remain numerous and routine.

The last hurdle is the court system. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, understaffing, inexperience, and lack of evidence can make convictions hard to obtain, and district attorneys may pass them over for just those reasons. In response, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys’ first-ever conference on Prosecuting Animal Cruelty and Fighting was held in 2009, and special training sessions and a number of seminars on prosecution of animal cruelty are conducted, each year across the country. The tendency of many career criminals to begin (and continue) with animal abuse gives added incentive for prosecutors to attend.