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Mistreating pets and livestock could result in a felony conviction for the first time in Idaho after the Senate on Thursday approved a measure that would get the state off a very short list of others that don't impose tough penalties for animal cruelty.
If Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter signs the bill next week it would end an annual legislative battle in Idaho and leave the Dakotas as the lone states lacking such provision. The Republican governor has not indicated whether he supports the measure.
Historically averse to animal protection legislation, Senate lawmakers voted 24-11 Thursday to approve the plan, which makes a third animal cruelty conviction in 15 years a felony. It also makes it a felony to organize cockfighting events accompanied by drugs and gambling.
The state House backed the proposal earlier this week.
Animal rights groups, who have threatened to put much stiffer cruelty penalties before voters, lauded lawmakers for passing the bill.
"We couldn't be happier, because it's a tremendous step forward for the state," said Ann Church, vice president of state affairs for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "We hope what happens in Idaho will now happen in North and South Dakota."
Animal rights groups in Idaho are in the process of collecting nearly 50,000 signatures to put an initiative in front of voters in November asking for even tougher penalties, including first-offense felonies in some instances.
The effort spurred Idaho lawmakers to action, but it appears unlikely to secure enough signatures to trigger a ballot initiative, and some groups have ditched it to support the legislative remedy.
It comes partly in response to instances where some animal owners facing financial difficulties failed to feed or properly care for livestock, including a high-profile case in 2011 involving dozens of starved and neglected sheep, goats, pigs, llamas and horses.
Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, backed the plan on the Senate floor, saying it protects the state's vital animal production industry by exempting normal practices, such as branding, castration and dehorning.
That compromise earned the plan approval from the livestock industry.
Sen. Jeff Siddoway, a Republican sheep rancher from eastern Idaho, led opposition against the plan, arguing it would only encourage animal rights activists to seek further protections that imperil the animal production industry.
"As soon as they get done with this, I'm just sure they're going to be after the standard animal operating practices," Siddoway said. "These are animal rights extremists that think that animals have the same rights as human beings."
Brackett said the Senate's action may not quell all calls for tougher penalties from animal rights activists, but it will provide a shield against future criticisms.
"We will be better able to defend the food industry against those attacks," Brackett said.