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The Yin and Yang of Using Legislation to Promote Animal Welfare

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The Yin and Yang of Using Legislation to Promote Animal Welfare

By Bee Friedlander, Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
March 2012

Several weeks ago, I spoke at an animal law conference. I talked about the cycle between animal abuse and other violent behavior, which had been bolstered by studies over the past few decades that established "the Link." I also talked about a number of state laws in the past 10-15 years which are clearly a response to the growing body of evidence that there is a cycle between animal abuse and other violent behavior.

Consider that in 1997, just 15 years ago:

It's reasonable for animal advocates to take pride in the number and variety of animal-friendly legislation that has been passed in response to studies showing the connection between animal abuse and other violence.

However, it is also necessary to adopt a more nuanced view of the efficacy of legislation in changing the lives of animals. Consider two recent bills (one now signed into law) that have been widely reported recently.

In Idaho, the legislature is considering a bill that would make certain types of animal abuse a felony. The state is among only three in the country with no such felony provision. Good news, you say? Not so fast. In what can only be called a cynical move, S.B. 1303 backed by the livestock industry passed the state Senate late last month by a vote of 31-1-2, and is now before the Idaho House.

The bill only makes animal abuse a felony upon the 3rd conviction for animal abuse within 15 years. In addition, each incident of alleged cruelty -- regardless of the number of animals involved -- would be charged as one count.

Animal advocates oppose the bill, seeing it as an attempt to circumvent their effort to put a stronger bill on the November 2012 ballot by initiative. According to a local report, "Bill sponsor Sen. Bert Brackett acknowledged that one of the reasons for bringing forth the legislation is to fend off what he called extreme efforts by animal rights activists to impose more strict regulations." (The lone "no" vote was cast by a Senator who is skeptical that Idaho has an animal abuse problem, and spins the fact that Idaho is among the last hold-outs in felonizing animal abuse this way: "This is a compliment to Idaho because we don't have a problem.")

In Iowa, the power of the large-scale agriculture industry is even more clearly shown in the "ag gag" bill that Gov. Terry Branstad signed last week. Iowa now has the distinction of being the first state to make it a crime to lie to get onto a farm to secretly record animal abuse.

"Branstad's action wasn't a surprise. Iowa is the nation's leading pork and egg producer, and the governor has strong ties to its agricultural industry."

Not coincidentally, the group Mercy for Animals recorded unsanitary conditions and repeated abuse of chickens at Iowa's Sparboe Farms, one of the country's largest egg producers, and a report was aired on the television show 20/20 last fall. As a result, McDonald's and Target cancelled contracts with Sparboe.

On the other hand, the past few weeks have seen the introduction of some positive legislation.

The U.K. government announced plans to ban the use of wild animals in circuses, noting, "There is no place in today's society for wild animals being used for our entertainment." But there is a note of caution to be struck here, as well. The MP who first introduced the legislation last year, as a result of the abuse of a circus elephant named Anne, says he does not trust the government to implement their stated goals. According to the Animal Welfare Minister, "We are developing proposals to introduce a bill as soon as parliamentary time allows. In the meantime we are introducing a circus licensing scheme to ensure decent conditions for wild animals in travelling circuses."

anne, elephant, beating
Anne, image from Animal Defenders International (ADI)

Finally, the Kansas legislature is considering a bill to add Animal Control Officers to the professions who are required to report child abuse. This is of keen interest to the ASI. Our Rapid Response consultant, Phil Arkow wrote in support:

Animal control officers represent a cadre of trained, dedicated and observant professionals ... Because they encounter thousands of children each day ..., they can serve as additional ... eyes and ears ... in the community. Like other law enforcement officers, they should be considered part of the community's first lines of defense against family violence.

He continued:

The Animals and Society Institute has undertaken an initiative in Kansas City to create a multi-disciplinary community coalition addressing child abuse, domestic violence, animal cruelty and elder abuse. This initiative also trains therapists in specialized psychological techniques for the assessment and treatment of animal cruelty offenders and is introducing this process to prosecutors and the courts.

First introduced in late January, the bill passed the House by a large margin and now is set for a committee hearing tomorrow (Mar. 8) in the Kansas Senate.

My conclusion? As is so often the case in advocating for animals, legislation is a mixed bag. One can celebrate the successes but must remain ever vigilant.