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Published February 12, 2013, 02:21 PM

South Dakota Senate panel rejects animal cruelty measure

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A measure that sought to make aggravated cruelty to dogs, cats and horses a felony was rejected by a South Dakota legislative panel Tuesday after state officials and representatives of agricultural groups said it would have conflicted with existing laws that effectively combat animal abuse.

By: CHET BROKAW,Associated Press, Associated Press

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A measure that sought to make aggravated cruelty to dogs, cats and horses a felony was rejected by a South Dakota legislative panel Tuesday after state officials and representatives of agricultural groups said it would have conflicted with existing laws that effectively combat animal abuse.

The Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee voted 7-1 to kill the bill, which supporters said would help catch and treat mentally disturbed people who often mistreat animals before harming people.

Animal rights groups have said South Dakota and North Dakota are the only states without felony penalties for animal mistreatment. The North Dakota Senate has approved such a bill, which now awaits action by the House.

South Dakota law currently makes inhumane treatment of animals a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine. The bill would have established a new crime of aggravated cruelty to dogs, cats and horses, a felony punishable by up to up to two years in prison and a fine of $4,000. Aggravated cruelty would have been defined as malicious and intentional mistreatment, torture or cruel treatment resulting in the serious injury, illness or death of a dog, cat or horse.

State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven said existing laws work well to deal with cases of cruelty, abuse and mistreatment of animals. The new crime proposed in the bill would have conflicted with existing laws and caused confusion among law enforcement officers, he said.

A study two years ago by legislators, law officers, veterinarians and animal rights groups found there was no need to change South Dakota law, Oedekoven said.

"The tools are already in place to address complaints of inhumane treatment of animals in South Dakota," Oedekoven said.

Rep. Ann Hajek, R-Sioux Falls, a co-sponsor of the bill, said a key provision would have allowed a judge to order the psychological evaluation of anyone convicted of animal cruelty. Studies have shown that many people convicted of murder, rape, domestic abuse and other violent crimes started by abusing animals, she said.

"It can be a sign of future violent acts," Hajek said.

Shari Kosel of Lead said she started working to get such a bill passed five years ago after a neighbor's dog was tortured. She said the bill was promoted by South Dakota residents, not by any outside animal rights group.

The bill's main sponsor, Sen. Stan Adelstein, R-Rapid City, offered to change the bill to exclude horses and clarify that accepted animal competitions would not be considered cruelty. However, the committee killed the bill without discussing his proposed changes.

The measure would not have applied to hunting, fishing, trapping, branding and any activities that are customary in farming and ranching.

But the South Dakota Farm Bureau, South Dakota Farmers Union and a host of other agricultural groups opposed the bill, arguing it was poorly written and not needed.

State Agriculture Secretary Walt Bones said existing laws outlaw animal abuse.

"No one can condone the abuse of animals," Bones said. "Being an opponent of this bill should not imply we are not in favor of taking care of our animals."

Sen. Shantel Krebs, R-Renner, the committee chair, said lawmakers care about animal welfare, but the bill was written without any input from agricultural groups. She said the bill's supporters should work with agricultural groups to come up with a version acceptable to farmers, ranchers and others.

The bill passed by the North Dakota Senate would make animal cruelty a felony. In cases of abuse, neglect and abandonment, a first offense would be a misdemeanor and second within five years would be a felony.

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