Neglected and abused domestic pets and livestock would get a faster response from Alaska's state veterinarian than afforded under current state statues if a bill introduced last week in the Alaska House becomes law, proponents say.
House Bill 275, introduced by Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, would add specific new duties to protect livestock and domestic animals to the state veterinarian's job. He or she would be required to act within three days to investigate complaints of mistreatment or neglect and to refer possible violations of state laws to the Depart-ment of Law.
Robert Gerlach is the current state vet. His office is part of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's Division of Environmental Health.
HB 275 would require the state vet's office to immediately remove and provide care for livestock and domestic animals that are being mistreated or neglected and to provide for the education of the public regarding the proper care of animals.
Current state statute defines the crime of cruelty to animals as a Class A misdemeanor, a level of crime carrying a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. The bill is more specific, defining two levels of cruelty.
Cruelty to animals in the first degree, a Class C felony, would apply to people who knowingly torture animals to death.
Cruelty to animals in the second degree, a Class A misdemeanor, would cover such behaviors as failing to provide animals with proper food, water and shelter or intentionally abandoning animals under circumstances that create a substantial risk of injury or death.
Violators could be charged as first-degree felons if they had a previous conviction as a second-degree offender in Alaska or any other state with a similar law, or if they violated provisions of the second-degree statute with respect to a herd, collection or kennel of 10 or more animals.
The penalties normally available to judges for a Class C felony include a maximum of five years in jail and a $50,000 fine.
The proposed bill would give judges other penalties to dish out for both levels of crime, including forfeiture of animals, compelling the defendant to reimburse the state or person providing care and limiting a defendant's right to own, possess or have custody of animals.
Chenault said he tried last year to amend state cruelty statutes, but the bill died with the end of the 22nd Legislature. He called HB 275 the "new and improved version" and said it was prompted, in part, by some recent, high-profile cases on the Kenai Peninsula involving dogs and horses.
"We really have no one in charge" of cruelty cases, Chenault said. "The Alaska State Troopers don't really have the laws to help them make decisions about whether they do or do not have a cruelty case."
The amendments in HB 275 would give the state veterinarian the power and duty to go and look for himself, or if unable to do so within the three-day requirement, to provide troopers with the information they would need to make a decision in his absence, Chenault said.
"We want something that works, something with authority to make a decision, yes or no, and if there is a case for cruelty, to take action against people rather than letting them roam free to do it someplace else at another time," he said.
Chenault predicted the biggest battle might be over the felony definition. He said last year in the previous attempt at a new law, some lawmakers balked when the penalties proposed for cruelty to animals appeared to exceed those for children.
He said the Legislature should look at increasing the penalties for child abuse.
"That's a whole different battle," he said.
HB 275 contains one provision a new duty for the state vet designed to preclude use of the proposed law, should it pass, as a tool for animal rights groups to attempt to stop dog mushing and other animal activities.
The bill provides that among the new duties of the vet would be to "assist, promote and encourage mushing and other animal activities and events."
"It's in there for different groups' understanding," Chenault said. "We are not out to stop dog mushing or other uses of animals. We are showing that we support dog mushing."
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