By Chet Brokaw
PIERRE (AP) — A South Dakota legislative panel endorsed a measure Tuesday that would make animal cruelty a felony in South Dakota, the only state without a felony penalty for cases involving severe animal abuse.
Similar bills have failed in past years amid fears they could interfere with the livestock industry, but this year's bill was written in an effort that included members of an animal welfare group and a wide array of agricultural groups.
The Senate Agriculture Committee, which rejected an animal cruelty measure a year ago, voted unanimously Tuesday to send this year's version to the full Senate for further debate. A legislative analysis estimates two people a year will be convicted of felony animal cruelty.
State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven, who led the effort to write the bill, said animal welfare supporters, livestock groups, law enforcement officials, veterinarians and local animal control officials worked together to craft the measure.
"It turns out that finding common ground was easier than we might have guessed," Oedekoven said. "We all care for animals. We all want what is best for them. ... What is clear is there are certain acts against animals that we all will not tolerate."
Current South Dakota law makes inhumane treatment of animals a Class 1 misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. The neglect, abandonment or mistreatment of an animal would remain a misdemeanor in the bill.
However, the bill would make cruelty to animals a Class 6 felony, punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of $4,000. Cruelty is defined as the intentional, willful and malicious infliction of physical abuse that causes prolonged pain, serious injury or death of an animal.
The measure also clarifies that legal hunting and standard, accepted practices for raising livestock are not considered mistreatment or cruelty.
State Deputy Agriculture Secretary Trudy Wastweet said her agency supports the bill because it protects the livestock industry. South Dakota has 1.2 million hogs, 275,000 sheep and 3.8 million cattle, she said.
"Farmers and ranchers focus every day on providing the best care for their livestock, not just because it's good business, but because it's the right thing to do," Wastweet said.
Shari Crouch Kosel, of South Dakotans Fighting Animal Cruelty Together, a 3,000-member organization that has pressed for a felony animal cruelty law, said more than 40 people from within the state had a hand in writing the bill.
"This bill is good for South Dakota because it is a South Dakota bill," she said.
Anita Lee, of Hereford, was the only person to testify against the bill in Tuesday's hearing. She said elevating abuse of an animal to a felony could have severe impacts on convicts, including a loss of the right to vote or the loss of a professional license.
Lee suggested that the bill be delayed a year while its possible affects are studied.
But lawmakers and other said all felony convictions carry consequences, and most rights are restored after a convict completes a sentence.
Officials representing a range of agricultural associations testified in support of the bill.