Defanging the Law

How special interests helped take the bite out of an initiative punishing animal cruelty.

When the Idaho state Legislature passed an animal-cruelty law earlier this year, businesses that had posted petitions in their stores for an upcoming animalcruelty initiative just threw the petitions out.

They’d figured the law was the same as the petition, says Virginia Hemingway, president and communications director for the initiative, called Idaho 1 of 3.

But it wasn’t. Not even close.

In fact, says Hemingway, the whole point of the law — put forth by the Idaho Cattle Association — was to undermine the much more strongly worded people’s initiative.

And it looks like it worked. Hemingway’s group called their initiative Idaho 1 of 3 because the state was one of only three in the nation (North Dakota and South Dakota being the other two) without a felony punishment for animal cruelty.

The initiative would make animal torture a felony on first conviction, rather than a misdemeanor. It would also define other kinds of cruelty — such as neglect and overworking — and make them felonies on third conviction. And it would raise the penalties for the existing misdemeanor conviction for animal cruelty.

But while Idaho 1 of 3 was gathering petitions, Boise passed its own take on animal cruelty. The law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. C.L.

“Butch” Otter makes animal cruelty a felony on third conviction. But it only uses one definition — “malicious intent,” according to Hemingway. And the law does not increase the misdemeanor penalties for the first two convictions. The law also provides for a first felony for cockfighting, but only if money and gambling are involved.

The new, weaker law — and the confusion caused by its timing — has taken the wind out of Idaho 1 of 3’s sails, says Hemingway.

“And of course it was their initial promise, to block our initiative,” she says, referring to the cattle association. “Because the Legislature passed that fake felony [law], people automatically assumed that’s what we were doing.”

Hemingway acknowledges that her group’s initiative probably won’t make it to the ballot now. As of Tuesday morning, the group had submitted 29,744 signatures to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office. That is just under two-thirds of the 47,432 signatures due by Monday.

The supporters of the law, meanwhile, stand their ground.

Stan Boyd, who lobbies for the Idaho Cattle Association and leads the Idaho Woolgrower’s Association, says the law is a solid step forward. In March, Boyd pitched the legislation — which exempts animal agriculture practices like branding, de-horning and castration, among other things — to legislators. He says that creating a first-conviction felony wasn’t a political reality and that industry groups were nervous about having multiple definitions of cruelty, like adding the definition of torture.

“What’s the next thing they’ll come back with: [animal] torment?” he says.

“There are other states that have similar penalty provisions,” Boyd adds. “These folks can downplay it and say it’s weak all they want.”

But in fact, of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, 45 have first-time-felony laws for animal cruelty, according to the Humane Society of the United States. With the passage of Idaho’s animal cruelty law, now only the Dakotas offer a mere misdemeanor. Four other states apply felonies to second convictions.

John Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy with the Humane Society, told The Inlander earlier this year that the bill that eventually became law would not have much practical effect.

“That bill is extremely weak, and in practice I don’t ever see it being used,” Goodwin says. “It’s unlikely someone will be caught for animal cruelty three times [under the law].”

Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, agrees that the cattle association’s bill pulled the rug from under Idaho 1 of 3. But Trail, who voted for the bill, sees the whole process as a small step toward better laws.

“I think it shook up and scared the cattle industry,” Trail says, referring to the ballot initiative. “What Virginia’s group did was forced the issue to finally get [the bill] passed.”

Hemingway says she hopes that in the near future a felony definition of torture will be added. In the meantime, Trail says, Hemingway and animal rights activists should savor the moment.

“I think maybe they ought to draw a deep breath,” says Trail, “and say, ‘Hey, you know, all our efforts were successful in getting something on the books.’” 

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