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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published December 30 2010

Grand Forks legislator aims for felony penalties for extreme animal cruelty

Spurred by recent high-profile incidents of animal cruelty and criticism from national animal advocacy groups, a Grand Forks legislator and state prosecutors are drafting legislation that could give North Dakota its first felony penalties for “egregious” animal cruelty.

The North Dakota State’s Attorneys Association is drafting a bill after consulting with the state Stockmen’s Association and other ranch and farm organizations, whose members have resisted previous calls for stiffer animal cruelty laws, fearing that could lead to a broader animal rights assault on their livelihoods.

Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the stockmen’s group, said they have been involved in the state’s attorneys drafting of a bill along with other farm and ranch groups and animal shelters.

“We’re pleased to have a chance to help shape that legislation with other people who have the best interests of animals at heart,” she said. “We want to make sure that any language drafted would find a balance and … doesn’t unintentionally target animal agriculture.”

North Dakota near bottom

The push for greater animal cruelty sanctions comes as the Humane Society of the United States again has ranked North Dakota near the bottom among the 50 states for its lack of felony-level penalties.

Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, who volunteers at the Circle of Friends Humane Society of Grand Forks and has been working on legislation to increase state penalties, said he was motivated in part by recent regional news reports of severe cases of animal cruelty.

A 7-month-old orange tabby named Timothy was spotted on a southern Minnesota highway near the South Dakota border last December, its paws and nose glued to the pavement. The animal lost paw pads, claws and skin when it was freed. It later died.

In June, a German shepherd-mix named Star was brought to an animal shelter in Fergus Falls, Minn., after someone apparently had cut its throat and left it to die. The dog survived.

Minnesota ranks 30th

North Dakota is one of just four states without felony penalties for such cases, which contributed to its ranking in 48th place by the national Humane Society, which looked at more than two dozen areas of animal rights law, from attending dog fights to operating puppy mills to committing “egregious” acts of animal cruelty.

(Minnesota ranked 30th due in part to its lack of “basic protections for companion animals and wildlife,” according to the society’s report.)

Mock said he is working with legislative colleagues and with the stockmen’s association, the North Dakota Farmers Union and other groups “to make sure all the concerns they have are aired out.”

Mock said he believes the Legislature, convening next month in Bismarck, will consider raising the penalty for “egregious” animal cruelty from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class C felony.

“I will introduce (a bill) if no one else does,” he said.

The Circle of Friends Humane Society, which is affiliated with the national Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, includes on its web site an appeal for broad support for changes to state law.

“It’s up to all of us to make major changes in the humane treatment laws in North Dakota,” the appeal states. “North Dakota currently has only misdemeanor level penalties for even the most severe animal cruelty. … Felony level penalties are essential in protecting animals from abuse.”

No loophole for activists

Ellingson said the association will continue to monitor proposed legislation on animal abuse and cruelty.

“Farmers and ranchers take great pride in how we take care of our animals,” she said. “It’s how we make our living.

“But we have a different view of animal rights than some of the anti-animal agriculture activists. We don’t want to give them a loophole” to place new restrictions on the handling of farm and ranch animals.

Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald