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Ag Committee Batters Animal Abuse Bill

A measure to expand the state’s animal cruelty law to cover livestock may not have a political leg to stand on after lawmakers beat it up in a legislative committee Tuesday.

Livestock are in fact protected by animal cruelty laws, but the aggravated animal cruelty provision only punishes individuals who hurt non-livestock animals, like dogs and cats.

Animal cruelty includes overworking, not caring for, or abandoning animals. Aggravated animal cruelty would include intentionally killing or causing serious physical injury to livestock.

Under the bill, causing such harm to livestock animals would be a Class E felony, punishable by one to six years behind bars, and a fine of up to $3,000. Currently, animal cruelty to livestock is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.

Rep. Janis Baird Sontany, D-Nashville, who is sponsoring HB3386, told members of the House Agriculture Committee that she believes a link exists between harming animals and committing violence against humans.

“If you think back at all of the cases we’ve had about the school shootings…each of those young men were known to have abused animals,” said Sontany. They “set cats on fire, kill dogs by shooting them. There are studies over and over again that do talk about that,” she said.

Sontany acknowledged there are some provisions to protect livestock in the law presently. But she added that the laws on the books are not being well enough enforced.

Because such crimes status under current law are not felonies, many prosecutors choose not to pursue the cases, Sontany said.

“The DA says ‘it’s a misdemeanor – I won’t prosecute,’” she said, adding that prosecutors often cite their heavy caseloads as a reason they don’t fully investigate and bring charges. “I’m trying to give them tools in their belt to encourage them to prosecute.”

The bill’s opponents, however, aired a number of complaints against the measure. Several lawmakers, including Morriston Democrat Rep. John Litz, questioned whether increasing penalties would indeed translate to more prosecutions and convictions.

“If the DAs are not doing and enforcing the laws that we have now, what makes you think that increasing it more is going to make them do any different?” he asked. “Do we have room in these jails and these prisons to be able to put people who are out here that commit heinous crimes against animals?”

Litz also warned that farmers may be falsely accused of violations by people unfamiliar with agriculture practices. He related one situation in which a “witness” filed a complaint against a farmer after observing a cow that appeared too skinny. The person who made the report just didn’t know the difference between a beef cow and a milk cow, said Litz.

“(The individual) didn’t know that a dairy cow was not supposed to be big and fat and plump — that they’re supposed to be lean – their purpose is to produce milk,” he said.

The Tennessee Farm Bureau is lobbying heavily against the bill largely for that reason. Leaders in that organization worry people who don’t understand common livestock-management practices might file unnecessary complaints against farmers, in turn possibly costing them time and money to defend against.

The group’s opposition has drawn fire from supporters of the legislation, but committee members such as Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, tried to deflect that criticism, saying The Farm Bureau is representing the farmers of Tennessee. “Farm Bureau is doing what their group wants them to do. They are representing what Farm Bureau is all about,” he said, adding that both his local bureau chapters are against the bill.

Sontany said the Farm Bureau is part of the problem in her quest to protect animals.

“I did go to Farm Bureau when I drafted this bill to ask if they would work with me and to come up with something we could all be comfortable with and they refused,” she said. “They’re the 800 pound gorilla that walks around (the legislature). They’ve got the clout – not me (as) one legislator. I would welcome their help, but all I get is ‘No.’ They’re not going to negotiate in any way.”

A vote on the bill is expected in next week’s Agriculture Committee hearing after the panel hears from district attorneys about prosecuting cases of animal abuse of livestock.