Ag gag getting choked

Ag gag getting choked

State animal cruelty legislation faces stiff opposition from activist groups that view it as "hiding" animal abuse.

IN New Hampshire, state Rep. Bob Haefner has introduced a bill to stop animal cruelty by reporting it to the only people who can stop the cruelty, investigate and make an arrest, if necessary: the local police.

"We want to stop cruelty to livestock, if we have any in New Hampshire. I do not tell anyone to stop undercover operations. I do not tell anyone that they cannot use films anyway they want. The only thing we ask is to report it within 48 hours," he said.

Still, his bill has faced stiff opposition from groups such as The Humane Society of United States (HSUS), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

"For every letter to a representative in favor of the bill, there were 75 against it, all prompted by HSUS, ASPCA and PETA," Haefner explained.

HSUS says it opposes "anti-whistleblower" bills, calling them agriculture's "attempt to hide animal cruelty and prevent the American public from finding out about the abuses in the first place."

Animal rights activists and groups continue to "mischaracterize" Haefner's bill. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) originally opposed the bill. Haefner said the amended version fixed ACLU's concerns, but now, the group has a whole new set of concerns.

"I do not think they will ever be happy until we say that folks do not have to report cruelty," Haefner said.

He introduced a similar bill in 2013 and is trying to table the bill in 2014 in hopes of making some suggested changes next year.

"I am going to have to beat the animal rights activists at their own game by selling the need for the legislation," Haefner said.

Haefner said the truth of the matter is that the public is not in the milking parlor, the hog barn or the chicken coop.

"In reality, we are asking ag professionals to do the reporting, the same as we ask child care professionals to report child abuse," he said.

Ag gag getting choked

Battle ahead

Last year, state legislatures looked at 15 bills that would criminalize unauthorized videotaping on farms and ranches. Of those, 11 were considered, and all failed.

These so-called "ag gag" bills have gotten a bad rap in recent years, but for agriculture, the messaging has been lost, especially among state legislatures with fewer rural constituents.

Emily Meredith, communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, said these legislative debates face an uphill battle over emotion versus fact. This year, the alliance hopes to reach out to the growing number of legislators who are unfamiliar with farming before activists get to them and influence their decision.

"We're not out here to cover anything up. There's no reason these bills are being portrayed as 'ag gag' when it's mandating reporting of any cruelty," Meredith said.

Last week, Indiana considered SB101, which HSUS called the first anti-whistleblower bill introduced for the year. HSUS claimed that SB101 could make felons out of whistleblowers who are trying to expose unethical or illegal activities on industrial farms.

However, Amy Cornell, policy adviser and counsel at the Indiana Farm Bureau, said SB101 is quite different from last year's SB373, which protected farms from illegal videotaping. SB101 instead focuses on trespassing and punishing anyone who causes damage to a farm, including grain operations, without permission from the owner. It takes away the burden of requiring farmers to post a "no trespassing" sign.

"People keep trying to make this about something else, but it is clearly about trespassing," Cornell said.

When HSUS was questioned on its opposition to the bill, Matthew Dominguez, public policy manager for the HSUS Farm Animal Protection campaign, said his group is reviewing the bill for how it would or would not suppress whistleblowers.

"We welcome the fact that proponents of the ag gag bill have taken the animal welfare, food safety and First Amendment concerns of their constituents to heart and decided to amend this dangerous legislation," he said.


Middle ground?

In South Dakota, the agriculture industry has tried to fashion another way to achieve a bill that recognizes the needs of agriculture while also penalizing violators.

Farm and ranch organizations teamed with state veterinarian Dr. Dustin Oedekoven, as well as others interested in preventing cruelty to animals, to introduce SB46.

"We have been hearing for years that South Dakota laws do not provide a serious enough deterrent or mechanism to deal with the most malicious and willful violations of animal cruelty," he said.

The bill specifically defines "animal neglect" as different from "animal abuse" and creates a felony penalty for "intentional, willful, malicious" acts of cruelty toward animals.

Oedekoven, who is also executive secretary for the South Dakota Animal Industry Board, explained that although South Dakota has excellent laws in place to deal with animal cruelty, neglect and abuse, defending the threat of "felony cruelty" legislation that appears before its legislative body every January and February is not a productive use of time.

He added that in developing the bill, livestock groups sought the input of other interested stakeholders in the state, including a local animal welfare interest group (which is not directly affiliated with any of the aforementioned national groups), law enforcement officials, local humane societies, local animal control officers, South Dakota State University extension, the South Dakota Veterinary Medical Assn. and others. However, they "did not seek the input or approval of outside interests," Oedekoven said.

Darci Adams, HSUS state director for South Dakota, said the organization is watching SB46 and called it "a step in the right direction for South Dakotan animals."

Oedekoven added that, while he's not a politician, he sees strong support for the bill.

"The fact that nearly every livestock and ag organization in the state has pledged their support of the bill is a good sign and should carry some weight in our ag-driven state," he explained.

Volume:86 Issue:04

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