It’s 2014. Wouldn’t you expect by now that every single state in the U.S. would have a law on the books making the worst types of animal cruelty a felony? After all, some states got on board with this idea literally hundreds of years ago — Massachusetts, for example, which enacted the first such law in 1804.
Beginning in earnest in the 1980s, states began recognizing that certain crimes against animals demanded stronger penalties. One by one, each state added felony provisions to their regulations, until today only a single state is left without one. Which state? South Dakota.
Right now in South Dakota, no matter what horror you perpetrate against an animal, it’s nothing more than a misdemeanor. Fortunately, it looks like that may finally change this year.
What Took South Dakota So Long?
After years of resistance, in recognition of the persistent pressure exerted by state animal advocates and national groups like the Humane Society of the United States, the state began work to change its animal cruelty law in 2013.
So what was all the foot-dragging about? Not surprisingly, it was the influence and fears of the agriculture and livestock industry. If you have any doubt about how powerful this sector is in South Dakota, here’s a hint. With bipartisan support, in 2012 the state legislature passed a resolution that:
“…opposes any attempt for any ballot initiative or acts by the Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and other animal rights groups that would undermine the livelihood of agricultural producers.”
Not surprisingly, shortly thereafter in 2013, a state Senate committee rejected a bill which would have made aggravated cruelty against dogs, cats and horses a class 6 felony. Despite the fact that the bill specifically excluded farming and ranching practices, agricultural and livestock groups pressed hard to keep it from passing. They won.
What changed this time around? It appears both sides deemed compromise a better solution than continued all-out war.
“Battling that same argument every year in the legislative session gets old after a while,” Mike Held of the South Dakota Farm Bureau told the Huffington Post.
Ultimately, the livestock lobby decided it’s better to help pass a law it likes than wait to have animal activists force a statewide ballot initiative that they just might win.
“What it really comes down to is that the ag groups have taken charge of this,” State Veterinarian Dr. Dustin Oedekoven told the Huffington Post. “Instead of being on defense on the introduction of this type of legislation, they’ve decided to be at the table in drafting this legislation.”
According to Dr. Oedekoven, the proposed revisions will recognize that “for certain acts which I think all agree are terrible acts and we would agree a felony penalty would be appropriate. We’ve also been careful to clarify in general that standard accepted ag practices are not considered mistreatment or cruelty.”
Ah, those standard agricultural practices. Animal advocates believe many of those factory farming procedures are every bit as cruel as any felony-level mistreatment committed against a dog or cat. The livestock industry doesn’t agree. Therein lies the reason for its absolute rejection so far of any effort to regulate the treatment of animals.
While it’s a little worrisome that the livestock industry helped write this update to the law, it’s undoubtedly true that any version drafted without their close involvement would be doomed.
A group called South Dakotans Fighting Animal Cruelty (SDFACT) has spent the past several years trying to yank South Dakota into the 21st century on the issue of animal laws. Late in 2013, SDFACT convinced state Senator Shantel Krebs to set up a meeting with Dr. Oedekoven and the state Department of Agriculture. This maneuver broke the logjam and got compromise efforts moving.
SDFACT secured a seat at the negotiation table to help write South Dakota’s proposed new law. Representing the livestock industry was the South Dakota Animal Industry Board. The board includes seven members drawn from the pork, cattle and dairy industries, livestock feed producers, sheep growers, livestock auctioneers and veterinarians.
Together, these groups and others worked through the end of 2013 to create Senate Bill 46, proposed legislation they hope will win across the board support.
“Compromises were made by all. We have come to what I believe is a good draft,” SDFACT’s Heidi Hunter told the Huffington Post.
What the New Cruelty Law Proposes
Currently, animal cruelty is only a misdemeanor. The maximum penalty for treating animals inhumanely is a $2,000 fine and up to a year in jail. If passed, the proposed felony provision will impose a $4,000 fine and up to two years in prison for intentional and malicious acts of torture or other cruelty.
Those of us who love animals may say that even this punishment won’t be nearly serious enough, in some cases. That’s certainly true. Not surprisingly, the bill goes into more excruciating detail describing the livestock practices that are excluded from coverage than it does describing the activities that qualify as felony-level animal cruelty.
However, change sometimes happens only gradually. There is positive change afoot here for animals, and that deserves praise.
It will be no small victory simply to get felony animal cruelty provisions enacted in South Dakota. It’s been a long time coming.
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