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By Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published October 27 2012

Both sides of Measure 5 debate disagree over why it has support

GRAND FORKS – In the bitterly contentious fight over an animal cruelty measure on next week’s ballot in North Dakota, both sides agree that the initiated measure appears to have solid majority support among voters, as suggested by results of a Forum Communications poll released Saturday.

Why the support is there for Measure 5 is another matter.

“We’re not surprised, but we’re encouraged,” said Ellie Hayes, of Fargo, campaign coordinator for North Dakotans to Stop Animal Cruelty, which circulated petitions to put the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, part of a coalition of interests favoring legislative action over the initiated measure, said he wasn’t surprised to learn that the poll showed likely voters favoring the measure, 55 percent to 39 percent.

“That probably sounds right,” Goehring said. “It’s primarily because of the way the measure is written. If you aren’t knowledgeable about where it came from and how it would work, who would vote against it? You’d look like some sick individual who wanted to abuse animals.”

The statewide telephone survey was conducted Oct. 12-15 by Essman/Research of Des Moines, Iowa. It found strong support for the measure across the state.

The proposal would make it a Class C felony to “maliciously and intentionally” harm a dog, cat or horse. It would not apply to production agriculture or to lawful activities of hunters and trappers, licensed veterinarians or scientific researchers, or to people acting in defense of life or property.

“North Dakotans are compassionate people,” Hayes said. “We only want the best for our pets. This confirms what we’ve known all along, that North Dakotans want the worst animal abusers to pay for their crimes.”

Broader agenda?

Goehring worked with a coalition of farm and ranch groups, veterinarians, animal shelters and others to prepare a bill increasing penalties for the worst cases of animal cruelty for submission to the 2013 Legislature.

There was an attempt during the 2011 session to pass such a law, but the effort stalled. North Dakota and South Dakota are the only states without a felony animal abuse penalty.

“There was more work that needed to be done,” Goehring said. “There

wasn’t enough time prior to the Legislature meeting.”

There also was concern, he said, especially among people in agriculture about the role being played by the Humane Society of the United States.

“Their agenda is to change how animal agriculture functions and works and to stop the ‘exploitation’ of all animals in the United States,” Goehring said. “Once they got their foot in the door, through a ballot measure or law, then they felt they had the right and ability to keep redefining what animal care is to be and what the laws are to be.”

‘Scare campaign’

Hayes dismissed the warnings about the HSUS as unfounded, and she said she’s reluctant to leave the animal cruelty issue to Goehring’s coalition and the Legislature.

“These are the same groups that blocked animal cruelty bills in the past,” she said. “Voters see through the scare campaign they’re running against us. This measure has nothing to do with hunting or farming or fishing or ranching. Those are the concerns we keep hearing” from some voters.

“This is the right thing for animals now. Our animals deserve this now instead of empty promises from the Legislature. It’s in our values to protect our animals, and it’s unfortunate our laws don’t reflect those values.”

Goehring said he fears that passage of Measure 5 “may send a signal to legislators that they don’t need to deal with this issue, or that ‘the people have spoken,’ and they get nervous about stepping over the people.

“That’s what worries me. We finally have all the players and key legislators lined up to pass a good law,” but adoption of an initiated measure likely would thwart that.

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald