Activists: Some acts of animal cruelty should be feloniesA group of North Dakota citizens are proposing a ballot initiative to make animal cruelty a felony in the state. North Dakota is one of only three states with no felony penalties for any act of animal cruelty.
By: Brian Willhide, The Jamestown Sun
A group of North Dakota citizens are proposing a ballot initiative to make animal cruelty a felony in the state. North Dakota is one of only three states with no felony penalties for any act of animal cruelty.
Officials from The Humane Society of the United States and citizens involved in the initiative campaign met with supporters Sunday in Jamestown.
The initiative would make it a Class C felony to engage in in some specific forms of aggravated cruelty to living dogs, cats or horses. Specific forms include burning, poisoning, suffocating and drowning, among several others.
This would mark a change in the North Dakota Century Code, but would not affect the state Constitution.
A Class C felony in North Dakota is punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment and/or a $5,000 fine. Currently, the most extreme act of animal cruelty is a Class A misdemeanor in North Dakota and is punishable by up to 1 year imprisonment and/or a $2,000 fine.
This initiative would also subject violators to court-ordered mandatory psychological evaluation and/or counseling in addition to restriction from owning or possessing a dog, cat, or horse for up to five years after sentencing.
Alison Smith, animal advocate and initiative co-sponsor from Mandan, N.D., said it’s time for North Dakota to improve its animal cruelty laws.
“We’re 48th out of 50 right now,” she said, referring to North Dakota as one of only three states without felony animal cruelty penalties. “It’s time we do something.”
The Humane Society of the United States ranked North Dakota 48th out of all 50 states and Washington, D.C., based on animal protection laws.
John Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy with The Humane Society of the United States, said this initiative is something that has already seen positive backing from North Dakotans.
“Statewide polling back in November showed 4 to 1 support of felony charges for animal cruelty,” he said.
Goodwin said the current state laws don’t keep up with the values of citizens and urged supporters that a strong, precise initiative is the first step.
“We’ve made the language in this initiative as tight and specific as possible because the No. 1 goal is to get something put on the ballot,” he said.
The initiative will be officially sent to the North Dakota secretary of state’s office Wednesday. Within two weeks, the campaign will be approved or disapproved to begin collecting signatures in support of the initiative.
The 13,482 valid signatures are due back to the secretary of state’s office by Aug. 7, and subsequently must be verified before putting the initiative on this November’s ballot.
“We’re aiming for at least 17,000 signatures. But we think with the support we’ve already seen from around the state, we should hopefully be able to exceed that number,” said Dane Waters, political director for the Humane Society Legislative Fund.
Efforts to pass animal cruelty legislation in the past have fallen short, according to Waters.
“It’s not that there haven’t been a number of attempts in North Dakota Legislature to address animal cruelty laws, but they just haven’t been successful,” he said.
Most recently in the 2011 state Legislative session, Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, co-sponsored a bill that would have made it a Class C felony for repeat offenses of severe animal cruelty within a five-year period. It also had a stipulation requiring a study of animal cruelty in the state to take place in 2013.
The bill passed 47-0 in the North Dakota Senate, but failed 36-56 in the House.
“It just goes to show where we are with things when Legislature couldn’t even pass a bill authorizing a study of animal cruelty in 2013,” Waters said. “These animals cannot continue to wait.”
Waters said most opposition to previous animal cruelty measures was from those who were afraid harsher laws would greatly impact agriculture, ranching, and farming.
This initiative is tailored specifically to cats, dogs and horses.
“The language of this initiative has been seen by members of state Congress and several agriculture organizations. It has been designed specifically not have an impact on agriculture and farming in any way,” he said.
Karen Thunshelle, campaign manager for North Dakotans to Stop Animal Cruelty, said she knew months ago when she began discussing this that it would be tough to get this process moving without proper funding.
“We were missing the muscle and the funding, which is why it’s so great to have the HSUS helping us,” she said.
Smith said fees and dues from the 20,000 some North Dakota members of the HSUS will help pay for the initiative.
Thunshelle, along with her husband and Minot veterinarian Dr. Ron Thunshelle, are two of 25 state-required co-sponsors of the initiative along with Smith.
“The help from the HSUS and other organizations is great, but this really needs to be a North Dakota effort from the people of our communities,” Karen Thunshelle said. “We are the ones that need to step up and get everyone on board.”
Becky Johnson, co-founder of Prairie Paws Rescue of Jamestown, attended Sunday’s meeting and said she likes the measure’s language.
“The felony charge stipulation really has a good bite to it,” she said.
Johnson, who works in the Jamestown Animal Control Office, said the initiative is a great step to creating a new law, but problems with charges and sentencing are ultimately up to the courts.
“Something like this still doesn’t guarantee that charges will result in prosecution, but that’s more of a problem with the courts. There’s always the chance of charges being thrown out,” she said.
Smith said the initiative would at least give judges the framework to make better decisions about sentencing for animal cruelty crimes.
Idaho, one of the other two states without felony animal cruelty laws, recently passed a felony animal cruelty bill in the Idaho Senate and it will now head to the House for approval before being signed into state law.
For more information about North Dakotans to Stop Animal Cruelty and the initiative, the campaign’s official website will launch at www.NDStopCruelty.com Wednesday when the initiative is submitted.
Sun reporter Brian Willhide can be reached at 701-952-8454 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org