South Dakota’s ag groups are on board with a new law creating a felony penalty for animal cruelty. But lawmakers representing ag-heavy areas still have major concerns.
Over the course of an hour-long briefing Friday morning, state veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven and other law supporters tried to assuage fears that a felony charge is too harsh or that traditional ag practices would become criminalized under the law.
"If you really digest what we’ve worked on here, together as animal agriculture, taking into consideration the concerns of some citizens in our state that feel differently, I think we’ve really balanced it, to where we’ve addressed those unintended consequences very well," said Oedekoven.
But lawmakers like Rep. Betty Olson, R-Prairie City, and Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, remain skeptical.
"It’s always been against the law," Olson said. "We don’t do any of those things that those evil PETA people think we do. But I don’t like the idea that it’s going to be a felony. We’re caving in to a bunch of greenies from out of state who have no business messing with our agriculture business."
South Dakota is the only state in the country where animal cruelty isn’t a felony. For years, animal advocates both in South Dakota and around the country have tried to change that. But they’ve always lost because ag groups have been concerned such a law could make things like cattle branding or hog confinements illegal.
Now the ag groups themselves have gotten on board, determined to pass a felony animal cruelty law that they’ve written before the Humane Society of the United States or another group puts a version they like less on the ballot as an initiated measure.
"This is a proactive measure to deal with the constant threat," said Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association. "I truly believe if this gets to the ballot, I think we can beat it at the ballot. (But) it’s going to cost a lot of money to beat it at the ballot. And it doesn’t stop them coming back again in the future. Passing this legislation takes away the argument that South Dakota doesn’t have the felony."
All this doesn’t ensure passage of the bill, which will appear before a Senate ag committee containing plenty of farmers and ranchers.
Current South Dakota law makes it a misdemeanor to neglect, abandon, mistreat or abuse an animal. The proposed bill would make intentional, willful and malicious “gross physical abuse” of an animal a Class 6 felony, while keeping neglect, abandonment and mistreatment as a misdemeanor.
The crime would apply to both livestock and pets, though the two are investigated differently. Veterinarians at the South Dakota Animal Industry Board, which is by law filled with representatives of animal industries, investigate accusations of livestock abuse. Pet abuse goes straight to the criminal justice system.
The penalty for a Class 6 felony, the lowest in South Dakota law, is two years in prison and a $4,000 fine. Conviction of a felony also costs the felon some of their civil rights, including ability to own a gun and vote.
It’s the lifelong impacts of a felony convictions, beyond the prison time, that raised the hackles of people like Sen. Jim Bradford, D-Pine Ridge.
Bradford expressed concern that non-rural residents could decide that traditional ag activities were malicious abuse — and then convict a farmer or rancher of a felony, instead of the more moderate misdemeanors.
As an example of the kind of activity he thought shouldn’t count but might be interpreted as cruel under the law, Rhoden told a story of a neighbor who killed his own dog on the spot with fencing pliers after the animal was caught killing another rancher’s sheep.
"It was humane," Rhoden said. "The dog was killed instantly. But who interprets that?"
The proposed animal cruelty law includes, among a long list of exceptions, both “any humane killing of an animal” and “any reasonable action… for the destruction or control of an animal known to be dangerous.” Advocates of the bill told Rhoden those clauses would protect that rancher, though Rep. Anne Hajek, R-Sioux Falls, added that she doesn’t “feel really good about what (the rancher) did.”
Now the lobbying push will begin, with almost every single agriculture group in South Dakota pushing to get this passed.
"They need some additional information and some education on the background and the work that went in to do this, and the reasoning for why some of the sections are written as they are," said Mike Held, a lobbyist for the South Dakota Farm Bureau, of skeptical lawmakers. "We will do that."