Advocates and opponents of updating Utah's animal cruelty statutes resumed a battle this year that's been waged for at least the last two legislative sessions, and people on both sides of the issue could claim victory with passage at the end.
SB297, a second proposal this session on the issue from Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, creates a first-offense felony penalty for the crime of torturing a "companion animal," defined by the proposal as a domestic dog or cat. Previous Utah law did not provide for a felony-level punishment for any acts of animal abuse.
Lawmakers were inundated with e-mails and phone calls throughout the session as four different pieces of legislation attempted to address revamping current code.
The fine line lawmakers were aiming for was one that provided for a felony-level punishment for extreme animal abusers — the goal of animal rights advocates — but one that did not put members of the agriculture industry, particularly livestock growers, at risk of punishment for practices that are a normal part of their business.
Early proposals originating in the Senate successfully addressed each side of this line but were unable to bridge the gap. A compromise did not look possible early, but eventually one was worked out with the assistance of House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
The first bill of the session, sponsored by Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, had the full support of animal rights groups but came under fire from state agriculture interests. A second proposal, Christensen's first attempt, satisfied livestock growers but left animal advocates unsatisfied. The Christensen bill successfully passed a Senate committee hearing — one in which Davis' bill was left unheard — and a minor uproar ensued. After the maneuvering in the meeting, committee member Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, commented, "This is no way to run a Legislature."
After surviving the committee hearing, Christensen's bill passed the Senate floor, squeaking by with a last and deciding vote, breaking a 14-14 deadlock, issued by Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem. Valentine supported the bill after an amendment he championed in the committee hearing became part of the proposal.
After Senate passage, the bill languished in House Rules as pro-animal rights voices urged House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, to halt its advance. In the meantime, a third piece of legislation was introduced by Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, who took a shot at creating a middle ground between the divisive Christensen/Davis proposals.
The compromise document that emerged took a pared-down approach to the issue, compared with earlier proposals, leaving current Utah code on animal cruelty essentially unaltered, but creating a single, very specific instance in which a third-degree felony punishment can be levied. In addition to the statute's pertinence only to dogs and cats, the definition of torture leaves little room for inference, limiting it to acts of "intentionally or knowingly causing or inflicting extreme physical pain to an animal in an especially heinous, atrocious, cruel or exceptionally depraved manner."
The simplified bill, SB297, gave animal rights groups their felony penalty and created no new "wrinkles" that could be used against Utah livestock growers.
With stakeholder support and the backing of legislative power brokers, the bill cruised easily through both houses, garnering only minor grumbling about the relative severity of a third-degree felony sentence (up to five years in prison).
Gene Baierschmidt, director of the Utah Humane Society, said the voice of the people was the real motivator for action.
"We think the voters' e-mails and phone calls to representatives made a huge difference," Baierschmidt said. "They let legislators know that they wanted the law."
Baierschmidt, who spent many days at the Capitol lobbying lawmakers and following legislation, said he was exhausted, but pleased with the bill's passage.
"We're ecstatic about it," Baierschmidt said. "It's a statement about how we regard dogs and cats in our society ... and shows that we, as a society, are trying to move away from violence."
Christensen also was pleased with closure on this particular bill.
"I can't tell you how happy I am about it," Christensen said. "I've got lots of other things that need my attention."
SB297 becomes law upon signing by the governor, who has already voiced his support for the legislation.