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Animal cruelty target of North Dakota bill

BISMARCK - Aubrey, a cat turned over to the Central Dakota Humane Society in Mandan, was microwaved by her owner, and Smiley, a forfeited dog, had a leg wound that went untreated for multiple weeks.

Both cases took place in North Dakota and could be a felony under a proposed bill that was heard Thursday.

Senate Bill 2211 would increase the penalties for owners of abused pets by creating four specific definitions and punishments for animal abuse, cruelty, abandonment and lack of adequate care.

"There is not enough teeth in the law to make it worthy to prosecute these convictions," said Cameo Skager, president of CDHS' board of directors. "This bill provides the teeth."

Bill sponsor, Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, opened up the two-hour discussion in front of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Testimony was offered by many, including members of North Dakotans for Responsible Animal Care, which consisted of local humane societies, agriculture organizations, veterinarians and a zoo that worked on the legislation over the past two years.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring told the committee NDRAC worked hard to create a comprehensive plan that will have a significant impact on the state.

"The legislation is well balanced, addressing the most common cases of inhumane treatment of animals to those willful actions that cause serious injury or illness or death to an animal," he said.

The bill defines the four offenses as Class A misdemeanors for the first offense - punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine - and a Class C felony for a second or subsequent offense within five years - punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The bill defines animal abuse as the physical abuse of an animal. Animal cruelty is a willful act or omission that causes an animal pain, suffering, death or results in a serious illness and leaves an animal disfigured. Animal abandonment is when a person with custody or control of an animal deserts or fails to retrieve the animal within 48 hours after a boarding contract is negotiated. Adequate care is defined as providing sufficient food and water, shelter and necessary medical attention.

Julie Ellingson, a lobbyist for the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, said the NDRAC tackled a "very complex issue and monumental task" and came out with a set of penalties that will help if the bill becomes law.

"The tiered system is the best way to match the punishment with the crime," she said.

The bill would allow exemptions of the law for usual practices in production agriculture and breeding, lawful fishing, hunting, pest control and animal research among others.

DelRay Martin, a member of the North Dakota Veterinary Medicine Association, said current law allows veterinarians to take custody of an animal that is exposed to inclement weather or not properly fed and watered, but does not allow them to intervene where there is a lack of adequate care, abuse or neglect, which the proposed bill would allow.

She told the committee she treated a dog that had severe matting of the hair and overgrown nails that resulted in a severe skin and nail bed infection. Although she did not have the legal authority to do so, she advised the owner she would keep the dog if the owner did not come in for weekly visits.

Martin also said she has provided veterinary services after CDHS conducted four rescues from dog-breeding operations. The dogs had medical needs that generated more than 100 pages of medical records.

One dog rescue involved 200 puppies, Skager said.

"We as a state need to step up and say these are important," she said.

A large portion of Thursday morning's discussion revolved around Initiated Measure 5, which was defeated in 2012 by 65 percent of North Dakota voters.

The measure would have made it a Class C felony for an individual to intentionally harm a dog, cat or horse.

Advocates for SB 2200 adamantly said they voted down the measure because it did not cover every animal with the right forms of penalties.

NDRAC Chairman Jason Schmidt said Measure 5 was not created or directed from the inside, with a lot of help from outside special interests. He believes the proposed bill is good because it was written by North Dakotans.

Rep. Lois Delmore, D-Grand Forks, a co-sponsor of the bill, said that vote meant lawmakers had to do something. "The citizens have given us a mandate to help animal abuse problems and I believe this bill accomplishes that."

Doyle Johannes, president of North Dakota Farm Bureau, said the measure was pushed by outside interest groups that didn't know what was good for the state. "I believe strongly only North Dakotans should tell North Dakotans what to do and how to do it."

Johannes said he agrees with most of the bill, but opposes the felony charges for neglect, abandonment and abuse. He said the misdemeanor charges are enough and if any case were significant enough, it would fall into the animal cruelty definition and a felony charge could be enforced.

Johannes testified in favor of the bill, but his opposition to a portion of it meant he provided the only opposition recorded during the hearing where no committee action was taken.ND lawmakers look to create Heritage Fund