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House panel approves tougher animal cruelty bill

 A plan to toughen Idaho’s animal cruelty laws passed a House committee March 12 in action that would put felony animal abuse penalties in place for the first time in the state.

Lawmakers hope the measure will head off a ballot initiative from animal rights advocates that would seek far stiffer penalties.

The bill that advanced out of the House Agricultural Committee would impose a three strikes provision for torturing animals, with a third conviction automatically resulting in a felony. The proposal also makes it a felony to organize cockfighting events accompanied by drugs and gambling.

The measure has splintered support among animal rights groups for a November ballot initiative. Some groups have signaled support and are backing off their push to make it an election issue. Meanwhile others say it doesn’t go far enough.

Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, the bill’s sponsor, says his legislation is a better solution than the broader and more severe proposal that could come before voters this fall.

“I think the writing is on the wall,” Andrus, the chairman of the committee, said during a hearing on the bill the week of March 6.  “We’re going to have to do something in Idaho about animal cruelty.”

Under the measure, organizers of gamecock fights also could face felony charges if roosters are armed with blades or given substances intended to enhance aggressiveness.

Livestock and other production animals are exempt from the bill.

Andrus is holding an animal cruelty bill passed by the Senate earlier this year that was deemed too weak by animal rights groups.

The Senate bill failed to define or address animal torture, which is considered a more serious offense than cruelty and is defined in Andrus’ bill as intentionally inflicting unjustifiable and extreme or prolonged pain to an animal.

Some of those groups, including the Idaho Humane Society and the Idaho chapter of the Humane Society of the United States, testified in favor of Andrus’ bill. They praised the committee for agreeing to finally make it a felony to mistreat domestic animals. Idaho and the Dakotas are the only three states without felony penalties for animal cruelty.

Jeff Rosenthal, executive director of the Idaho Humane Society, called the legislation a huge improvement.

“We would be very happy if the legislative process would take care of this and put this issue to rest, at least for the near future,” Rosenthal said.

But Virginia Hemingway, president of Idaho 1 of 3, the group pushing the ballot initiative, called Andrus’ measure reprehensible. She said both versions of the bill fail to offer acceptable penalties and consequences for people who abuse animals.

“They’re sending fake bills with the word ‘felony’ in them,” Hemingway said.

Her group’s initiative, which encompasses all animals and makes torture a first-offense felony and animal cruelty a felony after three convictions, is the only way to send a strong message of deterrence in Idaho.

The group must collect 47,432 signatures by April 30 to get the initiative on the November ballot, and Hemingway said they were more than halfway there.

Andrus didn’t expect universal support from animal activists. But he also said his bill gives lawmakers the ability to demonstrate their efforts to toughen the state’s laws this session.

“This is not going to go as far as some of those people want to go,” Andrus said. “We cannot go as far as they want in this Legislature.”

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