BOISE, Idaho — Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter gave his approval this week to a new law that puts felony animal cruelty penalties on the books in Idaho for the first time.
The legislation signed by Otter and approved by lawmakers in the final days of the 2012 Legislature makes a third animal cruelty conviction over a period of 15 years a felony, leaving the Dakotas as the only states without a felony crime on the books for animal cruelty.
The new law also covers cockfights by making it a felony to organize fights accompanied by drugs and gambling, but it exempts normal animal production practices like branding and castration, protections considered critical for earning overall support from Idaho’s powerful livestock industry.
Toughening Idaho’s animal cruelty laws has been a long-standing goal of animal rights activists, and their efforts to get a much stiffer proposal in front of voters in November was credited by some lawmakers as motivation for passing the tougher penalties this year.
But the new law, which goes into effect July 1, has also softened the sense of immediacy among some animal rights groups for getting an initiative before voters this year. So far, a ballot initiative pursued by Idaho 1 of 3 faces an uphill battle, with organizers having collected a little more than half of the nearly 50,000 signatures required by the end of the month to qualify for the November election.
Animal rights advocates lauded Otter and lawmakers for adopting a tougher law on animal cruelty, but they are far from satisfied. Strategies are already being developed for next year to strengthen animal protections overall and improve upon the new law, which is seen by some as too weak and narrow to actually produce any felony convictions.
Lisa Kauffman, Idaho state director of the Humane Society of the United States, said she is trying to organize meetings with the agriculture industry and animal welfare groups to create a definition of and penalties for animal torture — which applies to behavior considered more extreme and malicious than cruelty. A bill to do just that was left on the cutting room floor in the Senate.
For now, Kauffman said her group is content to give the Legislature another chance next year to pass an animal torture measure before pursuing reform at the ballot box.
“I really think these bills should be going through the Legislature,” Kauffman said. “If we can’t get that done, an initiative by HSUS is definitely on the table.”