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Robin Huebner, Published July 24 2012

ROBIN HUEBNER REPORTS: Animal advocates split on cruelty law proposals

FARGO - You’d think virtually everyone would be in favor of a proposed North Dakota ballot initiative that would make certain heinous acts against animals a felony.

But the proposal is turning out to be a dividing force among the very people whose job it is to protect the health and welfare of animals.

Volunteers with North Dakotans to Stop Animal Cruelty have been hitting dog parks, farmers markets and local fairs all over the state, armed with petitions to get their issue on the November ballot. The group has until Aug. 8 to gather the 13,000-plus signatures to get the measure on the ballot but has set a self-imposed deadline of July 31 to allow some buffer time.

So far, a group spokeswoman says they are well over three-quarters of the way there.

Under the measure, it would become a Class C felony in North Dakota to maliciously and intentionally harm a living dog, cat or horse in 13 reprehensible ways – including burning, poisoning, crushing, impaling or disemboweling.

Right now, a person who does any of those things can be charged only with a misdemeanor. The measure doesn’t apply to activities such as animal branding, euthanasia done by a veterinarian or lawful medical research. It also includes a provision allowing the court to decide whether the guilty party must go through a mental evaluation and counseling, and whether they can have a dog, cat or horse for up to five years after sentencing.

Many in the animal care business say North Dakota has some of the weakest animal protection laws in the country, citing the fact that it and South Dakota are the only two states without felony provisions for animal cruelty crimes.

But here’s where some animal advocates part ways: Some wonder if this ballot initiative is really the best approach, fearing it will make it difficult to pass more comprehensive and meaningful laws in the future.

Nukhet Hendricks, executive director of the Humane Society Fargo-Moorhead, calls the ballot measure “a waste of time.” She says it’s far too narrow in scope, focusing on the most extreme and relatively rare acts of animal cruelty.

Hendricks says it does nothing to address what she and other shelter directors see every single day: animals suffering from abuse, abandonment, neglect and starvation. Her shelter rescues animals from local pounds, and tears filled her eyes as she talked about them.

“Every day your heart breaks, and every day it heals. You worry every day,” she says.

Hendricks is part of a coalition representing animal shelters, a zoo, veterinary and agricultural groups that recently made public a legislative proposal they say would go much further in protecting all animals, not just dogs, cats and horses. North Dakotans for Responsible Animal Care has been working for about two years on rewriting the state’s law on humane treatment of animals, with plans for the draft language to be brought before the Legislature early next year.

Their proposal deals with abandonment, neglect and cruelty, from the slightest offenses up to Class C felonies for the most serious crimes. It spells out appropriate exemptions for agriculture, and gives clarification and guidance to animal control officers and veterinarians when dealing with cases of animal mistreatment. It also spells out how law enforcement can respond to animals left in hot cars.

But those backing the legislative proposal fear their efforts will be for naught. The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association is one of the agricultural groups involved. Executive Director Julie Ellingson says, “Under state law, any approved ballot initiative can’t be touched for 7 years.” She says if their legislation seemed to differ or conflict in any way with the ballot language, “it would need a two-thirds super majority vote by lawmakers to pass … something that would be very difficult to get.”

And some believe there’s a deeper motive. The Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington, D.C., is backing and contributing money to the ballot initiative efforts.

Ellingson, speaking on behalf of livestock producers, not the legislative group, calls the HSUS “an extreme animal rights group” looking to get a foot in the door, with an eventual goal of abolishing animal agriculture.

She reminds people that HSUS is not an umbrella organization for all of the local Humane Society shelters across the country, that they’re not connected at all, even though “they use creative marketing to make it seem like they are.”

In fact, Ellingson says, if the measure makes it to the November ballot, the ND Stockmen’s Association will go so far as to encourage a “no” vote, either by itself or as part of a larger coalition.

The woman who’s heading up the ballot measure is disappointed by that. Karen Thunshelle is the campaign manager for North Dakotans to Stop Animal Cruelty. Her start on the ballot initiative coincided with her being hired as ND state director for the HSUS.

Reacting to Ellingson’s comment, she says, “I think it’s sad. We’ve made great efforts so it does not affect the ag heritage, and it doesn’t.”

Thunshelle says she’s been an animal advocate all her life and spent 16 years working at the local humane society in Minot, where she currently lives.

She says while she supports the current legislative proposal, her group decided to take the matter directly to the people to do something now because lawmakers weren’t able to get anything done about animal cruelty in the 2011 session. She disputes the claim that an approved ballot measure would hinder passage of broader legislation later.

In fact, Thunshelle thinks her initiative will actually help move the legislative process along. She says there is no campaign targeting traditional farm practices as part of the ballot initiative. According to its website, however, the HSUS has a long history of targeting certain farming, hunting and trapping practices nationwide, from halting intensive farm animal confinement in California to banning the hunting of mourning doves in Michigan.

There are hints as to the direction the ballot initiative, if approved, could head down the line. On the HSUS website, CEO and President Wayne Pacelle touts his success at getting state ballot initiatives passed – 25 in all since 1990.

In an interview with vegan.com, when he was serving as chief lobbyist for HSUS, Pacelle said this about the ballot initiatives: “The importance of the initiatives is not just the specific reforms that are enacted. The importance is in creating a trained network of political activists who can then initiate other reforms at the local, state and federal levels.”

One of those trained activists is Ellie Hayes, campaign coordinator for North Dakotans to Stop Animal Cruelty. She says she moved to North Dakota from her home state of Missouri a few months ago specifically to work on this ballot measure.

In 2010, Missouri voters approved an HSUS-backed “puppy mill” initiative, only to have state lawmakers and the governor amend it in 2011, after licensed dog breeders and agricultural groups complained.

In the aftermath, Hayes was reported to be part of a push earlier this year to make it more difficult for Missouri lawmakers to repeal any such citizen initiatives. When asked about her political motivations for moving to North Dakota, Hayes said, “I am as much a North Dakotan as anybody else here. It’s disheartening that people are trying to paint me with a weird brush.”

Several animal advocacy groups who endorse the ballot measure acknowledge the tie to the Humane Society of the United States can be a tricky one in a state where animal agriculture is so important.

Tammy Schillinger, a volunteer with the Humane Society of Richland and Wilkin Counties/Glenn Ista shelter in Wahpeton, says a number of people refused to sign her petition because it’s backed by the HSUS.

Crystal Whalen, secretary with 4 Luv of Dog rescue in Fargo, says, “I didn’t think it would become so political.”

Still, both Whalen and Schillinger believe the first step in toughening animal cruelty laws will best be made by voters.

Which group or groups truly have the best interests of animals – and the agricultural mainstays of North Dakota – at heart? It may be up to the people to decide come November.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Robin Huebner at (701) 451-5607