BY CHET BROKAW
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Animal cruelty could become a felony in South Dakota under a proposal intended to end years of debate on the subject by satisfying the concerns both of animal welfare groups and livestock producers, State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven said on Tuesday.
South Dakota currently makes inhumane treatment of animals a misdemeanor, and some animal welfare groups have said it’s the only state without felony penalties for animal mistreatment.
The Legislature has repeatedly rejected animal cruelty measures amid concerns from livestock producers. The proposal that state agriculture officials plan to present to the Legislature this year would make it a felony to commit malicious, intentional acts of torture or mutilation against animals, while also clarifying that standard accepted livestock-raising practices are not mistreatment, Oedekoven said.
Oedekoven is hopeful this year’s proposal won’t face the same obstacles as previous measures because agriculture officials worked with livestock producers and animal rights groups to come up with it.
“What it really comes down to is that the ag groups have taken charge of this. Instead of being on defense on the introduction of this type of legislation, they’ve decided to be at the table in drafting this legislation,” the state veterinarian said. “In doing so, we have created the felony penalty for certain acts which I think all agree are terrible acts and we would agree a felony penalty would be appropriate. We’ve also been careful to clarify in general that standard accepted ag practices are not considered mistreatment or cruelty.’
The bill would make intentional and malicious acts of torture or other cruelty a Class 6 felony, which carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison and a $4,000 fine, said Mike Held of the South Dakota Farm Bureau. Currently law makes inhumane treatment of animals a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine. Although the state has no general felony penalty for animal mistreatment, dog fighting is a felony Oedekoven said.
Oedekoven said existing laws work well to deal with cases of animal mistreatment, but that he hopes the proposal will end years of debate.
Held, who was involved in working out the compromise, said he hopes agricultural groups and animal welfare activists will support it.
“Battling that same argument every year in the legislative session gets old after a while,” Held said.
Heidi Hunter, of Sioux Falls, a leader of South Dakotans Fighting Animal Cruelty Together, said she hasn’t seen the final version of the measure yet but expects it will support animal rights.
“Compromises were made by all. We have come to what I believe is a good draft,” Hunter said.
Rep. Anne Hajek, R-Sioux Falls, a sponsor of a measure defeated in the state Senate last year, said this year’s proposal seems to be widely supported.
“I’m pleased that everybody came together on it the way they did,” Hajek said.
Industry Board investigate all complaints of livestock neglect, and most turn out not to be neglect, according to Oedekoven. Most problems are solved by educating livestock owners, he said.
The Animal Industry Board, which oversees livestock health in the state, approved a draft of the compromise in October. The bill will soon be officially introduced for consideration in the legislative session that opens Jan. 14.