Idaho ponders first felony animal abuse penalties
BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- For a decade Jeff Rosenthal has campaigned to toughen the consequences for people who neglect, abuse and torture animals in Idaho.
And for just as long, the director of the Idaho Humane Society has received the legislative stiff-arm from the state's senators and representatives in what he said has been a slow and frustrating saga.
"For 10 years we've been attempting to make progress on improving the situation for animals in Idaho," Rosenthal said. "It still doesn't seem to resonate with these legislators for some reason."
Idaho, North Dakota and South Dakota comprise the last front in a battle by animal welfare advocates to ensure all states have a law making animal cruelty a felony.
In these three rural states, jarring acts of animal abuse or torture can at most be punished by courts with a misdemeanor slap on the wrist.
But animal rights activists in Idaho and North Dakota, spurred by repeated statehouse defeats and amid growing public support, are now circumventing the statehouses and taking their case straight to voters with ballot initiatives that could appear in November.
Lawmakers in Idaho are starting to take notice.
Historically reluctant to entertain animal cruelty bills, the legislative body took two of them head-on Wednesday -- either of which would put felony animal abuse laws on the books in the state for the first time.
The specter of the much more severe proposed ballot initiative from animal rights groups galvanized the House to pass a measure that could slap felonies on people convicted of torturing pets and organizing gamecock fights where drugs and gambling are present
Later, the House Agricultural Committee passed a Senate animal abuse bill sponsored by the livestock industry but considered less appealing by animal advocates.
Idaho's powerful agriculture industry has been wary of animal cruelty measures and their sponsors, fearing the groups' end goals threaten their businesses, according to Wyatt Prescott, vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association.
But his group is in favor of legislation that protects animals without harming ranchers' livelihoods.
"Our business is taking care of those animals," Prescott said. "It's important for us as an industry to stand up against those that are treating their animals wrong."
House lawmakers voted 64-4 to pass the anti-torture plan sponsored by state Sen. Ken Andrus, which he calls a realistic proposal that toughens state laws while still protecting Idaho's agriculture industry by exempting livestock and production animals. The measure was applauded by animal welfare groups.
"In my mind, we've done the prudent thing," said Andrus, chairman of the House Agricultural Committee. "I think it's naive to think we cannot do anything."
That committee later approved the agriculture industry-backed plan passed by the Senate in February, which would apply to all animals, including livestock, and make certain animal cruelty convictions felony offenses.
The measure comes partly in response to instances where some animal owners facing financial difficulties failed to feed or properly care for livestock, including a high-profile case in 2011 involving dozens of starved and neglected sheep, goats, pigs, llamas and horses.
Animal activists say the plan doesn't go far enough because it fails to address torture or rooster fights.
Both bills face legislative steps before passing, though the industry-supported plan is closer to becoming law.
John Goodwin, animal cruelty policy director for the Humane Society of the United States, is putting the heat on the remaining three states, backing a ballot initiative in North Dakota to add a felony to state law.
"We are now in the 21st century. Things have changed and things have evolved. People want their pets to have protections from cruel acts of abuse," Goodwin said.
The North Dakota Legislature is not session in 2012, though in 2011 a bill that would have made certain repeat animal cruelty offenses a felony died on the House floor despite industry-wide support.
"It was really a fear campaign by a few legislators that were opposed to the changes," said Rep. Corey Mock, the North Dakota Democrat who sponsored the plan. "The vast majority of the state supports changes to the law."
If efforts to enact felonies in North Dakota and Idaho succeed, Goodwin plans in 2013 to hone in on the South Dakota, which has neither a ballot initiative nor a major animal cruelty bill in the works this year.
Meanwhile, some animal rights advocates in Idaho are in the process of collecting nearly 50,000 signatures to put an initiative in front of voters in November asking for much stiffer consequences, including first-offense felonies in some instances.
But Andrus' animal torture bill has curried support from some of the animal rights groups and divided that effort.
Goodwin's and Rosenthal's groups, once in favor of the ballot initiative, lauded the Idaho Legislature for passing the anti-torture measure.
But Goodwin vowed that the Humane Society would throw its weight behind a tougher ballot initiative next year if the bill didn't ultimately pass into law.
But for this year, lawmakers can show the public they've taken the issue seriously even if the ballot initiative makes it in front of voters, Andrus said.
"I think there is some justification for concern about mistreatment of animals," Andrus said. "I've tried to do this in a way that is reasonable."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.