Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bill about animal cruelty moves on

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/STEVE KEESEE State Rep. Pam Adcock (left), D-Little Rock, and state Sen. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville, talk Wednesday with Rodney Baker of the Arkansas Farm Bureau after a vote on SB77, which would make animal cruelty a felony.

With mostly just technical objections, the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended Wednesday a compromise bill to establish a felony animalcruelty law in Arkansas.

"The next time in Arkansas that someone decides to skin a dog alive, set kittens on fire, cattle-prod puppies or chain dogs to trees in woods and leave them without food or water, our prosecutors will have a real tool to go after these offenders," said Sen. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville, the bill's sponsor.

Senate Bill 77 is available for a vote in the Senate today.

Madison said establishing a first-offense felony animalcruelty law has been a "very, very long struggle" since she first brought it up as a House member in 1995.

"We are here where we are today thanks to the extraordinary effort of the attorney general [Dustin McDaniel], who has included the bill in his legislative package," she said.

McDaniel has worked with the Arkansas Farm Bureau to drop the group's objections to a first-offense animal-cruelty statute. Previously, the bureau had favored a felony only on second offense.

In return for the first-time felony charge, animal advocacy groups agreed to a provision in the bill that strips them of the power to make animal-cruelty arrests.

"No one had to give up their core principles, but everybody had to compromise," McDaniel said.

Gov. Mike Beebe has said he favors the bill, which has 20 sponsors in the 35-member Senate and 51 in the 100-member House.

Madison said the bill maintains misdemeanor animalcruelty charges for all animals - with enhanced penalties for multiple violations - but limits the felony to cruelty against dogs, cats, and horses. But someone charged with cruelty to other animals and convicted of a fourth offense in five years would be guilty of a felony.

The animal-cruelty felony would be a Class D felony carrying a penalty of up to six years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

SB77 calls for psychological treatment for offenders because cruelty to animals often leads to cruelty to humans, she said.

The bill exempts animal-husbandry practices so as to protect farmers.

Another provision bans such animal fighting as cockfights, often staged by "Mexican drug cartels. This is a blood sport, closely related to narcotic trafficking," McDaniel said. "One of the greatest threats to our economy is these unregulated birds which can carry the avian flu and can have a devastating impact."

He said some people have wondered whether someone letting a dog ride in the back of a pickup could be charged with a felony.

"This is not about my black Lab who always has ice on his ears when he comes back from the woods after a hunt," McDaniel said.

He said any prosecutor who would try to bring such a charge "clearly not envisioned by this law" would be committing "political suicide."

McDaniel said the bill exempts such practices as clipping off a dog's tail or trimming the ears of a dog because they are included in the Veterinary Practices Act, which the animal cruelty bill specifically allows.

Sen. Jerry Taylor, D-Pine Bluff, asked if a pet owner would be charged for putting a pet to sleep.

McDaniel said that is exempted as an "act of humanity."

Sen. Ruth Whitaker, R-Cedarville, called it a "wonderful bill."

The only objection came from Jeff Rosenzweig of Little Rock, a criminal-defense attorney, who raised technical billdrafting questions and opposed the mandate that the offender pay for psychological treatment. He wondered what would happen if someone refused to pay or didn't have the means to pay.

"You are trying specifically to get these people help, but you may be restricting the ability to get these people help if you are absolutely requiring them to pay for it," he said.

Sen. David Johnson, D-Little Rock, said he was fine with the bill the way it's written because he feels confident the courts would find some way to address that problem.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, Arkansas is one of six states without a felony first-offense provision in its animal-cruelty law.

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