Continuous Improvement on Anti-Cruelty Laws
North Dakota’s attitudes, as reflected in law and at the Legislature, send entirely wrong signals about animal welfare. Crimes against animals, whether perpetrated on dogs, cats, horses or cows, do not carry penalties that might act as deterrents. In case after case in the state, especially when farm animals are victims, abusers most often get a slap on the wrist and a small fine. The laws are weak, and even with marginal changes made by the 2013 Legislature, the law will remain inadequate, especially when viewed in light of the number of animal welfare violations reported.
That’s well-stated, and it’s the right sentiment that lawmakers in the state need to do better. North Dakota upgraded its anti-cruelty law in April, as a follow up to last year’s Measure 5 campaign, which put the issue of animal cruelty on the public agenda and spurred action by state lawmakers. The bill was watered down by the North Dakota Farm Bureau and other agribusiness interests during the legislative process, and fell short of the comprehensive reform that was promised to voters, but it was a major step forward and put felony-level cruelty penalties on the books for the first time in the state.
On animal cruelty and fighting statutes, the test is not perfection, but whether they are moving in the right direction. In 1985, only four states had felony penalties for malicious cruelty, 15 states had felony dogfighting penalties, and seven states had felony cockfighting laws, with cockfighting still legal in six states. In recent years, HSLF, The HSUS, and other groups made a conscious decision to reshape the legal landscape on animal cruelty and fighting to show a zero tolerance policy for this conduct in our country. As a result of this focused effort, malicious cruelty is now a felony in 49 states, dogfighting is now a felony in all 50, and cockfighting was outlawed in the six remaining states—and is now punished as a felony in 40.
In many cases, the states have upgraded their laws a number of times, closing gaps in the legal framework, strengthening the penalties, addressing loopholes, and fine-tuning their animal protection laws over the years. From a historic perspective, once a state breaks through the “glass ceiling” on felony penalties—even if it’s a relatively weak second-offense or third-offense felony only for repeat offenders—it is more likely to come back and fortify the law later. Take these examples:
- Indiana (1998), Virginia (1999), Tennessee (2001), Nebraska (2002), and Kentucky (2003) all passed second-offense felony cruelty laws, and later came back and upgraded them to first-offense felony—Indiana and Virginia in 2002, Nebraska in 2003, Tennessee in 2004, and Kentucky in 2007.
- Alaska passed a third-offense felony cruelty law in 2008, and made it a first-offense felony just two years later in 2010.
- Kansas upgraded its anti-cockfighting law to a high misdemeanor in 2002, and then made it a felony in 2009.
- Texas made cockfighting a felony in 2001, but the law had major loopholes and did not prohibit spectators, the possession of birds with the intent to fight, or cockfighting implements. All three of those activities, which allowed cockfighting to thrive, were banned in 2011.
- Nevada passed a second-offense felony cockfighting law in 2001, and upgraded it to a first-offense felony in 2013.