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Senate passes animal cruelty bill; House to take it up

BISMARCK -- A bill to beef up penalties for people who harm animals has one last hurdle before it is sent to Gov. Jack Dalrymple for his signature.

Senate lawmakers passed Senate Bill 2211 on Tuesday by a 43-3 vote. The bill is before the House, which will have to agree to the changes.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, said it now has a general comfort level among all the organizations that contributed to it.

The original bill was crafted by North Dakotans for Responsible Animal Care, which consisted of local humane societies, agriculture organizations, veterinarians and a zoo that worked on the legislation over the past two years.

"There have been no other bills as discussed as thoroughly as that bill and have a large presence of stakeholders that participated in the process," Flakoll said after the Senate vote.

He said the bill would provide better, more clear definitions of the law and provide appropriate protections for the agriculture community and animal owners.

The conference committee, with lawmakers coming from both chambers, made a few changes, providing exemptions in some instances.

An exemption is made from the law for any usual and customary practice in food, feed, fiber or ornament production, as well as boarding, breeding, sport rodeo, animal racing, fishing and hunting, wildlife management, research and pest control.

"The goal is to be thoughtful in the approach and not have any unintended consequences," Flakoll said.

Some are worried the exemptions may provide too much leniency toward the agriculture community, and might impede the bill's intent of beefing up the laws.

Sen. Stan Lyson, R-Williston, said he did not have any problems with the current laws.

"We have laws now that are working very well. New laws are going to create a lot of problems," he said.

Sen. Howard Anderson, R-Turtle Lake, said it will only create more hurdles for law enforcement and veterinarians, who could be forced to take in a seized animal and care for it while an officer publishes a notice in the official county newspaper indicating the owner has five days to claim it or it will be sold, put up for adoption or humanely destroyed.

"It's overreaching. I felt we didn't need all that," he said.

Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake, chairs the House Agriculture Committee, which heard the bill. He said the original proposal may have been leaning in favor of the harsher penalties that animal shelters wanted. Now he thinks it addresses concerns well on both sides.

"It's a start in the right direction. Some think it goes too far and others think we're not doing enough," he said. "We want to make sure we don't tie the ag communities' hands so they don't go out of business but make sure we penalize those few bad eggs that are out there."

He said Tuesday afternoon that there should not be much opposition to the bill and expects the House to pass it.

The bill maintains four differing definitions for neglect, abuse, cruelty and abandonment.

The House made a distinction in the definition of neglect, potentially allowing for more charges to be brought against someone who harms a dog or cat.

The bill says willful failure to provide a cat or dog with appropriate food and water for the species, breed, age and condition, as well as shelter and necessary medical attention, is a Class A misdemeanor.

Neglect toward all other animals is willfully neglecting an animal through the failure to provide food and water appropriate for the species and breed and sufficient to sustain the animal's health, minimal protection from adverse weather and medical attention in the event of an injury or illness.

The environment for a dog and cat is more narrowly defined than all other animals as requiring ventilated and clean space appropriate for the animal and free of conditions likely to cause injury or death.

Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, said, for instance, this will make sure a rancher will not be punished for allowing cattle to live in a dirty barn. "We all know what that's like and that's fine," said Miller, who chaired the bill's conference committee.

Here is how the bill proposes to punish other offenses:

- Abuse is a Class A misdemeanor for a first and second offense and a Class C felony for a third or subsequent offense. Abuse is defined as any act or omission that results in physical injury to an animal or that causes the death of an animal.

- Cruelty is a Class C felony for breaking an animal's bones, causing the prolonged impairment of an animal's health, mutilating an animal or physically torturing an animal.

- Abandonment is a Class A misdemeanor if a person relinquishes the custody or control of an animal, with no intention of reclaiming that custody or control, and without placing the animal into the custody or control of another person who is able to provide care for the animal. This includes the desertion of an animal and failure to retrieve an animal within 48 hours after an agreed-upon contract.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.