In 2002 an initiated act placed an animal cruelty bill on the November ballot that would have allowed felony charges against an individual committing a severe act of animal cruelty. More than 62 percent of Arkansas voters rejected it.
In the last legislative session, two bills failed that would have contained felony provisions, one on the first offense and the other on the second offense.
And that's been the story for felony animal cruelty legislation in Arkansas for 20 years. But, there is a chance, a good one, that lawmakers will pass animal cruelty legislation that contains felony provisions in the legislative session beginning Monday, joining 45 other states with similar felony provisions.
So what gives? Why now is there a chance of a strong animal cruelty bill in a state that has been so reluctant?
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel took it upon himself to bring all parties (lawmakers, animal advocacy groups, Arkansas Farm Bureau) to the table to find a common solution that all could agree on. McDaniel was the first to tell us that he didn't swoop in and save the day by single-handedly crafting a bill that would please all. He stressed that it took a lot of time, compromise and more time for the bill to reach its current stage. He's expected to file the bill next week.
There's no word of any opposing bill. In the last session, two different bills were floating around, one at the last minute.
There's not any organized opposition (yet). Arkansas Farm Bureau is supporting McDaniel's proposal. AFB actually helped craft it. AFB has opposed many animal cruelty bills. But to its credit, AFB has supported animal cruelty bills with felony provisions for repeat offenses. But to sign on to a bill allowing a first-offense felony is a first for AFB.
Sure there will be some opposition. Some farmers, hunters and lawmakers will still hesitate to support such a bill because of concerns for unintended consequences.
There appears to be approval from lawmakers. Incoming Speaker of the House Robbie Wills and incoming Senate President Pro Tem Bob Johnson spoke favorably of the bill. Some are still reluctant, but indicate they may be favorable.
Rep. David Dunn told the Forrest City Times-Herald that he wasn't "too keen" on a first-time felony bill, but indicated that he would likely support the bill based on what he had heard, acknowledging that he hasn't seen the bill.
McDaniel said he has commitments from more than half of the members House and Senate judiciary committees to co-sponsor the bill.
A law allowing felony charges for animal cruelty is long over due in Arkansas. But for a state that hangs its hat on its farming operations and wildlife resources, it is a surprise that so many seem favorable of such a bill this early.
Let's just hope the bill isn't so watered down that the felony provision only applies to the most severe cases of animal cruelty. We understand that misdemeanor charges are appropriate for many cases. But severe animal cruelty needs to be treated as such, and authorities need the ability to hold individuals who commit these acts accountable.
Some animal welfare folks would say that protecting the animals is reason enough to support a felony animal cruelty law. And they're right. But statistics show that those who purposely injure animals are more likely to have violent tendencies toward other individuals. If we can properly punish these folks once we know they are a threat to society, it may prevent the injury of people in the future.
McDaniel said he believes, if passed, this current bill will create one of the strongest animal cruelty laws in the Southeast. Hopefully, he's right.