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Felony proposed for animal cruelty

BISMARCK (AP) -- North Dakota law should include a felony penalty for people who are convicted of animal cruelty, a shelter administrator said Friday, listing cases she said deserved harsh punishment.

Sue Buchholz, director of the Central Dakota Humane Society's shelter north of Mandan, told the North Dakota Senate's Agriculture Committee on Friday of a cat that survived being "cooked" in a microwave oven, and a puppy that died after a man stomped its head in front of his girlfriend.

"We've had dogs with an open leg wound, torn to the bone; the owner was well aware of it (and) did nothing," she said during a committee hearing Friday. "It was left to suffer without any medical care."

At present, North Dakota's harshest punishment for animal cruelty is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. The legislation reviewed by the Agriculture Committee on Friday says repeat offenders can be charged with a felony that carries a five-year prison term and a $5,000 fine. The committee did not take action on the measure Friday.

Representatives of the North Dakota Farmers Union and the North Dakota Stockmen's Association said they did not object to harsher penalties for animal cruelty. However, they preferred a legislative study of the issue, rather than approval of the pending bill, they said. It is sponsored by Sen. Jim Dotzenrod, D-Wyndmere.

Woody Barth, a Farmers Union spokesman, said the legislation had grown to a 14-page bill after starting out as a four-page measure. Julie Ellingson, director of the Stockmen's Association, said association officials wanted to make sure the legislation would not cause unintended problems for livestock operations.

Should a study take place, the subject of appropriate penalties for animal cruelty would be examined by an interim legislative committee, which could then recommend a bill for the 2013 Legislature.

Barth said the job of drafting legislation for the 2011 session stalled when the leader of the effort, Cynthia Feland, a former assistant Burleigh County state's attorney, was elected to a state district judgeship last November.

Buchholz said she did not want a delay, and said she preferred to have egregious first-time offenders prosecuted for felonies.

"We feel as we wait to discuss the matter further, more animals will suffer abuse and neglect," she said. "We are disappointed that our interim work did not yield the result that would prove a meaningful deterrent for intentional and needless cruelty to animals."

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, which is based in Cotati, Calif., ranks North Dakota as one of five states where animal protection laws are the most inadequate.

North Dakota has no felony penalty for animal cruelty or abandonment, does not restrict animal abusers from owning animals in the future, and does not require mental health evaluations or counseling for offenders, the organization said in a 2010 report.

Daryl Lies, of Douglas, who tours county and state fairs with a "racing pigs" entertainment show, said he was troubled by several aspects of the proposed new animal-cruelty law.

One provision would allow a law officer to seize an animal for its own protection without a warrant if the officer believed the animal was being abused, he said

The bill is SB2365.