KATIE ZERR: Cruelty to animals bill is a delicate balance
In South Dakota, we like to keep people from the outside out of our business. We know what is best for the people who live and work here and those who don’t should keep their rules and regulations in California.
It isn’t that simple, but it is the attitude that has prevailed in our state. We are a unique breed that has lived and thrived in an area that would break a lot of those who look down their noses at us.
When changes are proposed we may dig in our heels and resist. What we have done before has worked and change could disrupt our way of life.
Thus is the delicate balance of the cruelty to animals legislation that is currently being debated in Pierre.
Animal-rights groups and animal lovers have pushed for years to make it a serious crime to abuse an animal in South Dakota. It is the only state that does not make it a felony to abuse animals. These groups argue that the current misdemeanor penalties are insufficient for certain cases.
There has been a push for these laws in previous legislative sessions, but supporters of the Ag industry have succeeded in defeating those bills. Their arguments revolved around national groups that have taken stands against common Ag practices, such as cattle branding. The Humane Society of the United States is one that takes a dim view of certain Ag practices.
Testimony in Pierre on Tuesday focused almost entirely on the protections the measure contained for traditional Ag practices. Legislators want to make it clear they are not against the law to protect animals from cruelty, but they want to protect the Ag industry and do what is necessary to protect South Dakotans.
The current legislation would keep it a misdemeanor to neglect or mistreat an animal but takes a strong stand against abuse. Cruelty is defined as intentional, willful and malicious “gross physical abuse” that causes serious injury or death. These acts, when proven, would be a felony and carry a maximum penalty of two years in prison and a $4,000 fine.
This legislation is long overdue but it is understandable that South Dakotans are a bit skittish about opening that door, especially with groups such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) that can take their mission to protect animals to ridiculous heights. One only has to read their objections to hunting and fishing to come to that conclusion.
It doesn’t help when stories come to light such as the one concerning an animal rights advocate who wants to place a roadside memorial in Georgia to remember several chickens killed in a highway wreck.
The news story got some national attention when a member of PETA filed an application for the memorial with the Georgia Department of Transportation. The 10-foot tombstone in memory of the dead chickens would be placed in the right of way of U.S. Highway 129 at the site where a truck hauling live chickens overturned Jan. 27.
Those types of stories make people who live off the land cringe and shake their heads at the absurdity of that thought process. It is no wonder they are apprehensive about opening a door here.
But then there are stories such as that of a family in Burbank, South Dakota, who lost a beloved family pet and hunting dog to a neighbor’s rage. Because he thought dogs in the neighborhood barked too much, this man took a hammer and bludgeoned the dog to death in its kennel. A neighbor saw him walking away from the kennel with hammer in hand. The man was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor as the law allowed.
To those who think of their pets as members of the family and to the children who lost the dog to such cruelty, it would seem there was no justice in the punishment allowed by law in the death of the dog.
Animal cruelty is also a predictor and indicator of violent crimes, domestic violence and child abuse. In a 20-year study, 70 percent of animal abusers were found to have then committed other crimes and 44 percent went on to harm people.
Passing a felony animal cruelty law for companion animals has been long overdue in South Dakota.
The delicate balance between this law and protecting a way of life may prove to be difficult to achieve, but as long as South Dakotans keep control, it can be reached.