Pet owners rallied with their four-footed friends at Souris Valley Animal Shelter Wednesday to encourage passage of a tougher law for animal cruelty.
Measure 5 on the Nov. 6 ballot would establish felony penalties for extreme cruelty to dogs, cats and horses.
"The debate is starting to heat up," said Karen Thunshelle of Minot, who chaired the petition drive for the measure. The measure has organized opposition from North Dakota Animal Stewards, and Thunshelle said supporters are hoping that Wednesday's rally and other activities will get the word out and clear up what she called misinformation that is circulating.
"This does not affect farming or hunting. We worded this very carefully. This was worded by great people in the state of North Dakota," she said. "It was drafted specifically for our state to exempt our agriculture, and hunting, fishing and trapping all of the things that are our culture here."
The measure lists 13 specific acts of cruelty that would become felonies if done maliciously and intentionally.
"We are not making anything illegal that's not already illegal. We are just upping the penalty," Thunshelle said."The intentions of this initiative are pure. They are for our state. We want to increase penalties for torture. That's it."
Supporters were prompted to introduce the measure after the 2011 Legislature failed to pass an animal welfare bill.
Jason Schmidt of Medina, chairman of North Dakota Animal Stewards, said the Legislature killed the bill last session because stakeholders weren't on the same page, but groups have since come together to get behind new, proposed legislation. North Dakotans for Responsible Animal Care has crafted a proposal that covers a broad array of animal welfare issues and includes language related to felony penalties for animal abuse. The group is a coalition of agricultural, sportsmen, veterinarian and pet rescue groups. Many of them also are part of North Dakota Animal Stewards.
Proponents and opponents of Measure 5 disagree over whether the measure would affect the ability to pass additional legislation. They disagree over the effects of Measure 5 and both cite misinformation on the other side.
"We definitely are saying that animals should be protected. We are saying Measure 5 doesn't do a good job of that," Schmidt said. Opponents say the measure doesn't cover enough animals or enough specific offenses and could penalize a person for euthanizing an injured animal, although proponents argue the measure is limited to malicious acts.
The North Dakota Veterinary Medicine Association opposes the measure because it is not broad enough.
"We may have taken a different position if it would have been inclusive of all animals and all forms of animal cruelty, not just the malicious and extreme acts," said Nancy Kopp, executive secretary for the association. "We will support a felony (penalty) for certain forms of neglect, abandonment and abuse, but we will not support the measure as written."
Thunshelle said measure supporters would support any legislation in 2013 that would contribute additionally to the state's animal welfare laws, noting the measure is designed to provide a start by singling out torture to the most common pets. She said supporters sought input from several stakeholder groups during the drafting of the measure but received a response only from the state veterinarian.
Beyond disagreements over wording, the support of the Humane Society of the United States for Measure 5 has done more to organize the opposition than anything else.
"That was a big concern for us who is pushing this, who is funding this," Schmidt said. Agriculture groups and the Humane Society have long been at odds, and Schmidt said North Dakotans, and not an outside group, should be drafting laws for the state.
Thunshelle said Measure 5 was drafted by North Dakotans, but the group reached out to the Humane Society for its knowledge in animal welfare.
"We have never hidden the fact that the Humans Society of the United States has offered their help," she said. "We took expertise from all involved."
Measure 5 has the endorsement of several national animal welfare groups. Another outside group, Protect the Harvest, based in Iowa, has shown its opposition, producing advertising against Measure 5. Schmidt said Protect the Harvest is acting on its own and is not associated with Animal Stewards.
Measure 5 has stirred controversy, but it also has support from many pet owners as well as from some pet shelters, law enforcement officers, businesses and veterinarians.
"It's important because animals shouldn't be allowed to be tortured," said Kristine Seabolt, manager at the Souris Valley Animal Shelter in Minot. She said she has seen the consequences of intentional harm to animals, but because the offense is a misdemeanor, busy law officers are less likely to make the cases priorities. A tougher law would give officers a leg to stand on, she said.
"We are here to represent the animals. That's what we should all be striving for," Seabolt said.