(WRN) -- State lawmakers heard often emotional testimony Thursday on the reasons why legislation that would make it a felony to sexually abuse an animal is needed in Wisconsin.

The bill is a response to the history of Sterling Rachwal, who has been in and out of jail and mental institutions since the 1980s after being caught sexually assaulting horses. Rachwal was recently given two years of probation and credit for time served in jail, after he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges for molesting horses in Brown and Manitowoc Counties.

Stable owner Renee Vandenberg of De Pere told lawmakers during a public hearing that horse owners live in fear whenever he’s free. She recounted sleeping in her stable with a gun years ago, in fear that her horses would be attacked at night. “I just cringe at the thought of what would have happened had he come into my barn,” she said.

Vandenberg says prosecutors have made it clear they are doing all they can under current law, but questioned why the same perpetrator is still on the streets, committing the same crimes after 30 years.

Brown County assistant district attorney Dana Johnson prosecuted Rachwal’s most recent case. He told lawmakers that he was unable to file felony charges against him because of the way the horses were assaulted and because the animals were not injured or killed as a result. Johnson says he opted for the misdemeanor charges because it would force Rachwal to serve some jail time, and he could be monitored after his release.

“I can only do so much with the penalties I have,” Johnson said. “I did the best I could with it.”

If passed and signed into law, the bill would make Wisconsin the 24th state to make sexual contact with an animal a felony.

Read more Wisconsin news from the Wisconsin Radio Network.

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