After years of contention, the legislature four years ago approved a new law against cruelty to animals, strengthening the penalties for offenders and bringing Arkansas more in line with other states on this issue. The new law was something of a compromise between animal-rights activists on one side, and agricultural and business interests, particularly the Arkansas Farm Bureau, on the other. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel played a large part in negotiating the compromise.
The fight, it turns out, is not over. Two bills that opponents say would weaken the protection of animals, and of consumers and workers too, have been introduced in the legislature. The bills, SB 13 and 14, have been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Jake Hillard of Little Rock, executive director of Arkansans for Animals, says:
"In my opinion, these bills represent a wholesale assault on many fundamental values shared by all people in Arkansas. Not only would these bills perpetuate individual animal abuse as well as abuse on industrial farms and mills, they would also threaten workers' rights, individual rights, consumer health and safety, law enforcement investigations and the freedom of journalists, employees and the public at large to share information about animal cruelty and something as fundamental as our food supply."
Betty Jones of Kingston, president of the Arkansas Horse Council, which is an instigator of the new bills, said that a number of states have passed laws similar to SB 13 and 14.
"Our board feels that farmers and agricultural people need to be protected from humane organizations," Jones said. "There are a lot of criminals in the humane movement that need to be dealt with. We've had instances where representatives of different humane groups, mostly HSUS [the Humane Society of the United States], have confiscated animals that were used in business ventures, presented bad evidence to judges, and disposed of the animals before the real owners ever appeared in court. The owners have never been paid."
Jones, a member of the Madison County board of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said that a representative of the state Farm Bureau told her that the Farm Bureau supported SB 13 and 14. Steve Eddington of Little Rock, director of public relations for the Farm Bureau, said, "We are aware of the bills, but we were not part of drafting them. We don't have a position at this time." A spokesman for Attorney General McDaniel said that McDaniel too was monitoring the bills but had not taken a position on them.
SB 13 would prohibit anyone but a certified law enforcement officer from conducting an animal-cruelty investigation or coercing a person to surrender his or her property through threat of criminal investigation or prosecution. (Much of the work of animal cruelty investigations is done by humane society employees and volunteers.) The bill prohibits the spaying, neutering, gelding or euthanizing of an animal without the owner's consent. It says that support for allegations of criminal abuse by an animal owner must be given by two veterinarians, one of whom is chosen by the person alleged to have committed the offense.
Hillard says that SB 13 will penalize animal welfare organizations and private persons "seeking to alert law enforcement to animal abuse," and "will make the investigation of any case of suspected abuse by law enforcement impossible ..."
SB 14 creates the offense of "interference with a livestock or poultry operation." It says that a person commits such interference if he obtains access to a livestock or poultry operation under false pretenses, or if he records an image of or sound from the operation by leaving a recording device on private property "with the purpose to cause harm to the operation."
Hillard calls SB 14 "a whistle-blower suppression law" that would "criminalize the use of undercover investigative techniques often employed to expose both animal abuse and unhealthy practices associated with even the most basic protections of our food supply."
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson of Benton was the original sponsor of SB 13 and 14, at the request of a horse-owning constituent. After what he called "an avalanche of response," he decided that an urban-area lawyer was perhaps not the best person to handle the legislation, so he handed it off to Sen. Gary Stubblefield of Branch (Franklin County), a farmer.
Jones said that people around Little Rock tend to think of horses as pets, like cats and dogs. To rural dwellers, horses are livestock, she said, most of them used in business-related ventures, such as trail-riding operations.
"It's sad that it's come to this," Jones said. "People want to give animals equal rights to humans."