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Patrick Springer, Published June 14 2012

Two separate coalition propose stronger animal cruelty laws in North Dakota

FARGO – North Dakota’s laws prohibiting animal cruelty are so weak that prosecutors seldom can take action, animal protection advocates have long complained.

After a new proposal announced Thursday, two separate coalitions are championing competing proposals to better protect animals – one that could go before voters in November and one that will go to legislators next year.

A broad coalition involving farm groups, veterinary medicine and animal shelters said Thursday that the proposed legislation would protect all animals – pets as well as livestock – and provide stiffer criminal penalties for mistreatment of animals.

“Existing law carries very few consequences for those mistreating animals,” said Nukhet Hendricks, executive director of the Humane Society Fargo-Moorhead.

The proposed law would, among its provisions:

• Allow police to cite someone for an infraction for leaving an animal unattended in a stationary motor vehicle in a way that endangers the animal’s health or safety. An officer also could take custody of the endangered animal.

• Allow law enforcement officers or veterinarians to seize animals if they have reasonable cause to believe the animal is subjected to cruelty or neglect. Owners can be assessed for reasonable costs of caring for seized animals.

• Enable law enforcement officers or veterinarians to seize an animal if there is reasonable cause to believe it has been abandoned.

• Make it a Class C felony for those convicted of causing “serious injury, serious illness or death of an animal.” A felony also could result if someone is convicted of committing two or more violations within five years.

Members of the group, which calls itself North Dakotans for Responsible Animal Care, say their proposed legislation offers a more comprehensive solution.

The group’s draft bill addresses animal abandonment, neglect and cruelty, with what its members describe as “appropriate exceptions” to clarify the law’s intent.

Those include “humane destruction of an animal for just cause,” “commonly accepted” agricultural and livestock practices, rodeo and racetrack activities, livestock exhibitions or competitions, as well as lawful fishing, hunting and trapping.

“It offers a more comprehensive response than the proposed ballot initiative,” said Doug Gehring, North Dakota agriculture commissioner and one of the draft legislation’s supporters.

The legislative proposal has the backing of the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, North Dakota State Board of Animal Health, North Dakota Veterinary Medical Association, North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, North Dakota Farm Bureau, North Dakota Farmers Union, Humane Society Fargo-Moorhead, Central Dakota Humane Society, Mandan and Dakota Zoo, Bismarck.

Those pushing the legislation said passage of the more limited ballot initiative, which targets extreme animal cruelty and protects only dogs, cats and horses, would make it difficult or impossible to enact the law.

The North Dakota Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to amend a statute that has been approved by voters for seven years after the law’s passage.

The rival group, North Dakotans to Stop Animal Cruelty, is circulating petitions to place an initiative on the November ballot targeting “aggravated animal cruelty” to prevent “extreme cruelty” to dogs, cats and horses.

The initiative defines aggravated animal cruelty, punishable as a Class C felony, as “Any individual who maliciously and intentionally burns, poisons, crushes, suffocates, impales, drowns, blinds, skins, beats to death, drags to death, exsanguinates (blood letting), disembowels, or dismembers any living dog, cat, or horse.”

“The Legislature has failed for years to address our weak animal cruelty laws, and last year refused to even study the issue,” said Karen Thunshelle of Minot, campaign manager for North Dakotans to Stop Animal Cruelty, the group pushing the initiative.

“There are no guarantees that the politicians in Bismarck will pass any bill, so we are going forward with our much-needed ballot measure and giving the people of North Dakota the opportunity to decide.”

Jason Schmidt, who ranches near Medina and serves as president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, said agricultural groups are behind the proposed legislation.

“We’re North Dakotans giving North Dakota solutions,” he said.

Kristi Schlosser Carlson, general counsel of North Dakota Farmers Union, said agricultural groups came together to appropriately protect animals.

“We all agreed there is a standard we have to meet,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522