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ND voters want stiffer animal cruelty laws

GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota voters would overwhelmingly support raising penalties for "extreme and malicious" acts of animal cruelty to felony levels, according to a poll commissioned by the Humane Society of the United States.

The state is one of three that treat extreme cruelty to pets as a low-level misdemeanor, according to the society. The others are South Dakota and Idaho.

"The state's current lax cruelty laws do not represent the interests of countless animal lovers across North Dakota and they desperately need to be strengthened," said JoDee Foss of Pet Project Humane Society, based in Dickinson.

Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, who tried during the 2011 legislative session to increase state penalties for "egregious" cases of animal cruelty, and later to have the issue studied prior to the 2013 session, said Tuesday he likely will make another effort next year.

"The problems are still there," he said. "We have no penalties for the egregious form of offender."

Mock developed his 2011 bill with assistance from farm and ranch groups and representatives of animal shelters. It proposed a felony penalty for anyone convicted of severely mistreating animals twice within five years. When that failed to gain support, he proposed the interim study.

In April, however, the state House of Representatives voted 56-36 against an interim study after opponents argued the state's current laws were adequate.

For years, the Humane Society of the United States has ranked North Dakota near the bottom among the 50 states for its lack of felony-level penalties for severe cases of animal abuse. In the recent survey, 63 percent of North Dakotans polled said they would vote to make cruelty to companion animals a felony, while 17 percent said they were opposed.

Lake Research Partners designed and administered the telephone survey of 505 likely voters in mid-November, using a list of registered voters with participation in similar elections. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Mock, who volunteers at the Circle of Friends Humane Society of Grand Forks, said the broad coalition that worked to come up with acceptable language in 2011 wanted to "protect North Dakota's animal industry" as well as improve animal cruelty laws.

"Unfortunately, it was too much too soon for some members," he said Tuesday. "So, we proposed the study instead, but unfortunately legislators were reluctant to go even that far."

He said the issue was complicated when Legislative Council staff, seeking to modernize "archaic" language in the law, took his proposed bill from four pages to 16. That unnerved some agricultural interests, who "feared that loopholes in our laws could be taken advantage of" by animal rights activists.

Haga is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co