South Dakota would become the last state in the nation to make animal cruelty a felony under a bill that received the Legislature's final approval Tuesday.
The House voted 54-15 to pass the measure, which was approved earlier by the Senate. It will become law if signed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
Similar bills have failed in past years amid fears they could interfere with the livestock industry, but this year's measure was written in a cooperative effort led by State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven. Livestock groups, law enforcement officials, veterinarians, local animal control officials and some animal welfare supporters worked on the bill.
Rep. Mary Duvall, R-Pierre, said the measure reserves felony charges only for those who willfully and maliciously seek to harm animals, while keeping a misdemeanor penalty for neglect or mistreatment. The bill also makes it clear that legal hunting, accepted livestock-raising practices and rodeos are not considered mistreatment or cruelty, she said.
Current South Dakota law makes inhumane treatment of animals a Class 1 misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. Neglect, abandonment, and mistreatment of an animal would remain a misdemeanor under the bill.
However, the measure would make cruelty to animals a Class 6 felony, punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of $4,000. Cruelty is defined as the intentional, willful and malicious infliction of physical abuse that causes prolonged pain, serious injury, or the death of an animal.
Rep. Elizabeth May, R-Kyle, tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to remove all references to local humane societies, which many cities pay to deal with abandoned or unwanted pets. She said ranchers want those references deleted because they could relate to the Humane Society of the United States.
"If we're going to go along with the felony and endanger our No. 1 industry in this state, then there should be no objection to taking the word 'humane society' out of anywhere in the bill," May said.
But other lawmakers said existing law merely refers to local humane societies that are not connected with the national lobbying group, which has criticized some livestock handling practices.
Rep. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, argued that the bill should be defeated because the Humane Society of the United States is blackmailing South Dakota into passing a law making animal cruelty a felony. The group has threatened to put such a proposal on the ballot for a statewide vote unless the Legislature passes a law, he said.
Other House members countered that the bill will better protect farmers, ranchers, veterinarians and others who work with animals.
Rep. Gary Cammack, R-Union Center, a rancher and business owner, said farmers and ranchers support the bill once they study it.
"For the ag community, this is an opportunity to steer their own ship and determine their own destiny," Cammack said.
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