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Published July 13 2013

Forum editorial: ND animal abuse law is a failure

Two horrific dog abuse stories last week confirmed that all is not up to par when it comes to North Dakota’s animal welfare laws. The reports from rural locations in the Red River Valley also suggest attitudes about known animal abuse tend to give abusers a pass until the situations are so bad they can’t be ignored.

In the first incident, a dog owner in rural Warsaw, N.D., (Walsh County) faces several charges after a roaming pack of his dogs attacked a young man who was walking down a nearby country road. The dogs apparently were not fed properly and the owner put them out at night to forage for food. The victim of the attack was severely bitten in the attack and is recovering.

The situation at the dog owner’s place was known by neighbors and law enforcement authorities. Tellingly, nothing was done until the dogs attacked the young man. In other words, when it was too late to prevent a serious incident.

In the second situation, at least 170 dogs were seized at a “puppy mill” near Wheatland, N.D. (Cass County) when law enforcement executed a search warrant. The dogs were in small cages, underfed, filthy and exposed to summer heat. They will survive, attending veterinarians said, but will need much care. The owner of the kennel faces a number of charges.

But like the Warsaw situation, conditions at the Wheatland kennel had to be known by neighbors and authorities. Could it be headlines out of Walsh County prompted Cass officials to act at Wheatland? How bad do conditions in which dogs and other animals are living have to be before law enforcement moves?

In fairness to sheriffs’ departments, North Dakota’s attitudes, as reflected in law and at the Legislature, send entirely wrong signals about animal welfare. Crimes against animals, whether perpetrated on dogs, cats, horses or cows, do not carry penalties that might act as deterrents. In case after case in the state, especially when farm animals are victims, abusers most often get a slap on the wrist and a small fine. The laws are weak, and even with marginal changes made by the 2013 Legislature, the law will remain inadequate, especially when viewed in light of the number of animal welfare violations reported.

In the two cases from last week, the alleged perpetrators will face the old laws because changes don’t go into effect until next month. Of course, in the Warsaw case, charges will reflect the dogs’ attack on the young man, in addition to animal abuse charges. In the Wheatland puppy mill outrage, the person responsible will be charged under the old state law, by which the crimes alleged are misdemeanors. The law’s harshest penalty is a $2,000 fine and a year in jail, a sentence seldom imposed.

North Dakota – the ag community, law enforcement and lawmakers – is still not serious about animal welfare. The record shows as much, and potential animal abusers know as much. Thus, they are willing to risk running afoul of ineffective laws with light penalties. That makes the law a pathetic joke that all but guarantees the Warsaw and Wheatland stories will be repeated.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.