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Animal cruelty will remain misdemeanor, South Dakota Senate committee decides

April Boyd plays with her 4-month-old pit bull puppy, Buddy, in this 2009 file photo in Mitchell. Boyd adopted Buddy after one of his previous owners cut off his ears with a pair of scissors. (Daily Republic File Photo)

PIERRE -- The crime of animal cruelty should remain a misdemeanor in South Dakota rather than be upgraded to a felony in cases involving dogs, cats and horses, a state Senate panel decided Tuesday.

The legislation brought by Sen. Stan Adelstein, R-Rapid City, and Rep. Anne Hajek, R-Sioux Falls, came in response to sickening instances of animals deliberately injured or killed.

One such story was told in telephone testimony by April Boyd, of Mitchell.

Boyd adopted a dog whose ears had been docked by its owner, who eventually spent 90 days in jail, paid a $500 fine and was responsible for more than $500 in veterinary bills.

Boyd said the man was charged months later for other crimes involving theft and domestic abuse. "I believe South Dakota needs to treat these violent acts of animal cruelty as a real crime," she said.

The Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee voted 7-1 to kill the legislation, SB 171, after hearing from a long line of opponents that included many agricultural lobbyists, state Agriculture Secretary Walt Bones and State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven.

Oedekoven said cruel acts described by various witnesses were "reprehensible and unacceptable" regardless of the species. But, he said, South Dakota's animal cruelty laws already are effective and a detailed review was conduct- ed in 2010.

Upgrading to a felony would have allowed a judge to impose up to two years in prison and up to $4,000 in fines. The bill would have applied to cats, dogs and horses. Sen. Adelstein, sensing the bill was in trouble, volunteered to remove horses.

But Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, asked for the bill to be killed outright without adding amendments.

Rhoden said he doesn't question the motives of the people supporting it.

He said he understands their passion as well as the passion of the opponents who are in animal agriculture.

Rhoden, a rancher, described times he's had to "put down" animals for various reasons. "This bill would require that I bring a veterinarian in," he said.

He told a story of a family dog shot by a neighbor for running on the neighbor's land. Rhoden had to kill the badly wounded dog.

Rhoden said prosecutors are already reluctant to file a misdemeanor charge and he didn't think they would be any more likely to file a felony charge.

Added Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell: "I don't think this bill as written is ready for prime time."

In her testimony opening the hearing, Rep. Hajek linked animal cruelty to a variety of big-name murderers.

Shari Kosel, who lives outside Lead, told how a neighbor's dog was tortured and murdered five years ago. "I'm mentally scarred by some of the images I've seen," she said.

Kent Brown from the Humane Society of the Black Hills asked the Senate panel to at least let the full Senate debate the issue.

"I'm not asking for miracles," she said.

Said Charlie Petrick of Rapid City: "We're not out on a witch hunt. ... We're there to protect them."

The committee's chair, Sen. Shantel Krebs, R-Renner, lectured the bill's supporters for failing to involve the agriculture industry. "That's where we go down a slippery slope," she said.

She urged the sides to work together and bring a compromise to the Legislature at some later date.