BISMARCK, N.D. - Lawmakers spent more than three hours Thursday hearing testimony on a bill that would stiffen animal cruelty penalties.
More than 20 people testified in a packed Brynhild Haugland Room before the House Agriculture Committee on Senate Bill 2211. It passed the Senate on Feb. 8 by a 45-0 vote.
The bill expands laws governing the proper care and treatment of farm animals and pets and sets out guidelines for penalties relating to abuse, animal cruelty, neglect and abandonment.
Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, said SB2211 was the culmination of more than two years of work by a number of agricultural, veterinarian and animal groups as well as local humane societies.
“It’s a bill whose time has come,” Flakoll said.
Flakoll said the language of SB2211 makes cases of abuse, neglect and abandonment a Class A misdemeanor on the first and second offenses. They would be Class C felonies for a third and subsequent offense. Animal cruelty would be a Class C felony charge on the first offense.
Flakoll said SB2211 is more complete than Measure 5, which was rejected in November by 65 percent of voters. Measure 5 related only to cats, dogs and horses.
Flakoll said animals deserve protection and have feelings, citing dogs mourning loss of their owners as an example. He urged the committee to recommend the bill.
“If we water this bill down … those who brought us Measure 5 will be back,” Flakoll said.
Losing a pet
Mandan resident Amy Brossart stood and repeated tearful testimony she’d given to the Senate Agriculture Committee in January on the death of her dog last September at the hands of her ex-husband.
Brossert began her testimony by playing a voicemail message on speakerphone. It was a message from September 2012 from her ex-husband, containing a string of expletives and threats to kill her dog.
“He followed through with those threats,” Brossart said.
According to a Mandan Police Department report, on Sept. 2, 2012, Michael Wetzstein reported he had stabbed his dog with a knife from the kitchen table because it attacked him. He said the dog later had to be euthanized due to its injuries.
However, Brossart, Wetzstein’s ex-wife, reported Wetzstein had left multiple messages on her voicemail threatening to stab her dog if she didn’t call him back. The message she played Thursday was among the messages from that evening.
Mandan Police Sgt. Jay Gruebele said a police report indicated Brossart had been awarded the dog in a divorce settlement. Wetzstein was convicted in Mandan Municipal Court in December of Class B misdemeanor harassment and Class B misdemeanor cruelty to animals.
Brossart said Wetzstein was sentenced in late January. He received a $500 fine and 20 days in jail, all suspended.
Mike Eaton, a farmer in Burleigh County, spoke in opposition to SB2211.
“We did not defeat Measure 5 to stick our neck in this noose,” Eaton said.
Eaton said the current animal cruelty laws are sufficient. He said instances of animal cruelty that are reported need to be pursued more adequately in the court system.
“We have a problem with not enforcing the laws currently on the books,” Eaton said.
Trent Loos, a rancher and radio show host, also spoke against the bill.
Loos said he has spent a lot of time over the past several years testifying in opposition to bills that would allow national groups like the Humane Society or PETA to infringe on farming and ranching.
“I’m worried about the unintended consequences,” Loos said.
Rep. Wayne Trottier, R-Northwood, said he thought there sometimes seems to be some confusion about the issues of humane treatment and the priorities when it comes to humans versus animals.
Loos replied by saying when it comes to animals he agreed that animals have feelings and deserve protection. He responded to Flakoll’s earlier statement about dogs mourning their owners’ deaths and agreed that at times that may indeed be the case.
“(But) that dog will also eat that owner if it’s lying there long enough,” Loos said.
Loos went on to say new laws shouldn’t be put on the books that could create unintended consequences or create an opening for national groups to exploit. He said current laws are adequate.
Tom Bodine, director of public policy with the North Dakota Farm Bureau, also voiced opposition. He said the group has backed out of the coalition that helped craft SB2211 after it had passed the Senate.
Bodine said the Farm Bureau had proposed amendments, including getting rid of the Class C felony charges.
Bodine said the Farm Bureau supports the Class C felony charges for animal cruelty but not for abuse, abandonment or neglect.
“When it’s an A misdemeanor, that’s a significant charge, and that’s all we can support,” Bodine said.
He added that the listings for neglect should be changed to simply require adequate food, water and shelter.
No action was taken on SB2211 on Thursday.
Sponsoring SB2211 along with Flakoll are Sens. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, and David O’Connell, D-Lansford, and Reps. Richard Anderson, R-Willow City, Lois Delmore, D-Grand Forks, and Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake.