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Associated Press, Published August 07 2012

Initiative would make some animal cruelty a felony

BISMARCK — North Dakota has one of the nation's weakest laws against animal cruelty, activists said while submitting a citizen initiative Tuesday that would make it a felony to severely mistreat a cat, dog or horse.

"We have waited on the Legislature, but unfortunately, (tougher animal cruelty laws) haven't come to pass," said Karen Thunshelle, of Minot, the chairwoman of the initiative campaign. "So we're taking this directly to the people."

Thunshelle, accompanied by about a dozen supporters, lugged boxes of petitions to Secretary of State Al Jaeger's office Tuesday. Thunshelle said the petitions had more than 25,000 signatures.

The signatures of at least 13,452 North Dakota voters are needed to qualify for the November ballot. Jaeger has about a month to decide whether the petitions are sufficient.

The proposed North Dakota initiative makes acts of "aggravated animal cruelty" against a cat, dog or horse a felony, punishable by up to five years in state prison and a $5,000 fine. The maximum punishment for violating North Dakota's existing animal mistreatment laws is a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

The measure defines cruelty in a number of specific terms, including burning, suffocating, blinding, disemboweling and death by beating or dragging. It says people convicted of felony animal cruelty could be required to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and ordered not to own a dog, cat or horse for up to five years.

North Dakota farm groups are fighting the measure. The North Dakota Farm Bureau, Farmers Union and Stockmen's Association issued a statement Tuesday calling the initiative "poorly worded" and saying it "could spell trouble even for those who are doing right by animals."

"The ballot initiative uses inflammatory language to incite our emotions, and fails to address the most common forms of animal mistreatment in the state," said Woody Barth, the president of the North Dakota Farmers Union and a rancher and farmer from Solen in rural south-central North Dakota.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, an advocacy group based in Cotati, Calif., says North Dakota and South Dakota are the only states without a felony penalty for animal cruelty.

Thunshelle said the drafters of the measure took care not to interfere with normal farming and ranching practices. Cats, dogs and horses are mentioned specifically because they are the most common companion animals, she said.

The North Dakota Legislature defeated a broader anti-cruelty proposal last year, in part because of opposition from agricultural groups. They have promised to bring an alternative proposal to the Legislature next year, an effort supported by Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.

Dustin Oedekoven, South Dakota's state veterinarian, said South Dakota does have a felony penalty for staging dog fights, with a maximum two-year prison term. However, most animal mistreatment offenses in South Dakota are misdemeanors, which are punishable by a year in jail.

Oedekoven said the South Dakota Legislature has declined to provide a broader felony penalty for animal mistreatment because it is not seen as a major problem, and farmers and ranchers fear a law would inadvertently affect them.

Farmers and ranchers "really feel like the industry is best served by self-monitoring, and ensuring that production practices are left to be decided between the veterinarian and the producer," Oedekoven said.

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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.