Idaho lawmakers, historically reluctant to entertain animal cruelty bills, took two of them head-on Wednesday — either of which would put felony animal abuse laws on the books in the state for the first time.
Spurred by the specter of a much stricter proposed ballot initiative from animal rights groups, the state House took action in passing a measure that toughens penalties for animal torture and gamecock fighting.
The House Agricultural Committee later passed a Senate animal abuse bill sponsored by the livestock industry but considered less appealing by animal advocates.
Idaho is one of only three only states without a felony animal cruelty law. Idaho's powerful agriculture industry has been wary of animal cruelty measures, but Wyatt Prescott, vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association, said his group is in favor of legislation that protects animals without harming ranchers' livelihoods.
"Our business is taking care of those animals," Prescott said. "It's important for us as an industry to stand up against those that are treating their animals wrong."
Under the House measure sponsored by state Sen. Ken Andrus, people convicted of torturing pets and organizing gamecock fights where drugs and gambling are present could face felony charges.
House lawmakers voted 64-4 to pass the plan, which Andrus calls a realistic proposal that toughens state laws while still protecting Idaho's agriculture industry by exempting livestock and production animals. The measure was applauded by animal welfare groups.
"In my mind, we've done the prudent thing," said Andrus, chairman of the House Agricultural Committee. "I think it's naive to think we cannot do anything."
That committee later approved a plan would apply to all animals, including livestock, and make certain animal cruelty convictions felony offenses.
The measure comes partly in response to instances where some animal owners facing financial difficulties failed to feed or properly care for livestock, including a high-profile case in 2011 involving dozens of starved and neglected sheep, goats, pigs, llamas and horses.
The agriculture industry-backed legislation was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate in February, but animal rights activists said the plan doesn't go far enough because it fails to address torture or rooster fights.
Both plans face legislative steps before passing, though the industry-supported plan is closer to becoming law.
Idaho and the Dakotas are the only states that do not have felony animal cruelty provisions.
John Goodwin, animal cruelty policy director for the Humane Society of the United States, is putting the heat on the non-complying states, backing a ballot initiative in North Dakota to add a felony to state law.
"We are now in the 21st century. Things have changed and things have evolved. People want their pets to have protections from cruel acts of abuse," Goodwin said.
The North Dakota Legislature is not session in 2012, though in 2011 a bill that would have made certain repeat animal cruelty offenses a felony died on the House floor despite industry-wide support.
"It was really a fear campaign by a few legislators that were opposed to the changes," said Rep. Corey Mock, the North Dakota Democrat who sponsored the plan. "The vast majority of the state supports changes to the law."
If efforts to enact felonies in North Dakota and Idaho succeed, Goodwin plans to hone in on the South Dakota, which has neither a ballot initiative nor a major animal cruelty bill in the works, in 2013.
"Elected officials are representatives of the people, and I don't think people in South Dakota want to be the only state in the nation with misdemeanor penalties for animal cruelty," Goodwin said.
Meanwhile, the animal rights groups in Idaho are in the process of collecting nearly 50,000 signatures to put an initiative in front of voters in November asking for much stiffer consequences, including first-offense felonies in some instances.
But Andrus' animal torture bill has curried support from some of the animal rights groups and divided that effort.
Goodwin's group, once in favor of the ballot initiative, lauded the Idaho Legislature for passing the anti-torture measure.
But Goodwin vowed that the Humane Society would throw its weight behind a tougher ballot initiative next year if the bill didn't ultimately pass into law.
But for this year, lawmakers can show the public they've taken the issue seriously even if the ballot initiative makes it in front of voters, Andrus said.
"I think there is some justification for concern about mistreatment of animals," Andrus said. "I've tried to do this in a way that is reasonable."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.