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State legislators face animal rights bills

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By Calen McKinney

Kentucky comes up last in the strength of its animal protection laws, but some state legislators are trying to change that.

Several bills up for discussion during this year’s regular session call for change in how animals are treated and protected in Kentucky. Four address measures that would strengthen the state’s animal protection laws.

The state’s animal protection laws ranked last in a recent study of the strength of the laws in the United States, for the sixth year in a row. Animal Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization, recently released its annual audit of the animal protection laws in the United States.

Along with Kentucky, North Dakota, Iowa, South Dakota and New Mexico round out the worst five states. According to a news release, the report analyzes more than 4,000 pages of laws, tracks 15 categories of provisions and calls out the states where animal abusers get off easy for their crimes.

Kentucky, according to the release, is the single worst state in the nation for animal protection laws, and goes the easiest on animal abusers.

This year’s best five states when it comes to animal protection laws are Illinois, Maine, California, Michigan and Oregon. Illinois got the best state title for the fifth consecutive year.

The four bills up for consideration are all at the committee stage in the process of becoming law.

State Rep. John “Bam” Carney, R-Campbellsville, says that with only one regularly scheduled meeting left of many of the state’s legislative committees, that is likely where they will stay.

House Bill 195 would allow a court to decide what happens to pets that belong to those involved in domestic violence situations.

State Reps. Joni L. Jenkins, D-Shively, and Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, are sponsoring the bill, which has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee for discussion.

Jenkins is a sponsor of House Bill 235 with State Rep. Ron Crimm, R-Louisville, which calls for those who are found or plead guilty to animal cruelty and torture to not be allowed to have animals of the same species for two years. The bill is also at the Judiciary Committee for discussion.

Jenkins, Crimm and State Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, are co-sponsoring House Bill 364, which calls for animal shelters to no longer be allowed to euthanize animals using a gas chamber.

The measure is at the Agriculture & Small Business committee for discussion.

Lastly, Jenkins and State Rep. Will Coursey, D-Symsonia, sponsored House Bill 374 to ask that torture of dogs and cats be made a Class D felony, which would be punishable by as much as five years in prison, in all instances.

Carney says he believes strongly in preventing the abuse of animals, but has mixed feelings about the bills.

With about 500 bills proposed, Carney said, it’s impossible to discuss them all. And with only a 30-day session, he said, the focus of legislators’ attention goes to tackling specific issues such as pension and tax reform, education, safety and redistricting. But along with those issues, he said, there has been discussion about animal rights.

“There’s a significant amount of discussion in the halls of the chamber about animal rights,” he said.

It’s unlikely the four bills will be given much discussion when so much is left on this session’s agenda, Carney said, even though there is bipartisan support for animal rights.

“There’s support on both sides of the aisles for these issues,” he said.

If it comes up for a vote, Carney said, he will support House Bill 195.

“Anyone who has the ability to abuse a person certainly could be abusive to an animal,” he said.

House Bill 235 is a bit more complicated, he said, and as such is tough for him to decide how he feels about it. “The definition of cruelty to one person could be different to another person.”

An example, he said, is the use of shock collars to train hunting dogs. He said many hunters use the collars. “I’m not necessarily a fan of it, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it torture,” he said. “I think hunters are very protective and take care of their animals.”

Carney said he would likely support House Bill 364, should it come up for a vote. He said he understands that some animals have to be euthanized.

“I think there’s probably a lot better ways to do that [than a gas chamber].”

And for House Bill 374, he said, his concerns, again, center on the definition of torture.

“That’s the concern,” he said. “If a person is flat out beating their dog, then they certainly need to be punished.”

State Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, said that since the four bills have originated in the House, he isn’t familiar with them. Should they come to the Senate for consideration, he said, he will study them. Higdon said, when serving in the House, he was involved in the passage of a bill that made a second offense torture charge a Class D felony. He said he strongly supported that and believes animal abuse shouldn’t be tolerated.

“I believe we live in a society that animal cruelty really shouldn’t be tolerated. There’s all kinds of ways to deal with it,” he said. “There’s a lot of emotion involved around these issues.”

Carney agrees.

“I certainly want to protect our animals,” he said.

And Carney said he is aware of the allegations made against the Taylor County Animal Shelter and he has discussed them with several constituents.

“We’re certainly award of the local issues,” Carney said. “We’re watching what happens. I feel like county officials are trying to take care of the matters.”

Carney and Higdon say this session is going well, with lots of meetings and discussion about bills.

“It’s plenty crazy,” Higdon said. He was going to spend Friday in his office working on paperwork and returning calls from constituents.

Carney and Higdon say they have heard from many Taylor County residents about their thoughts on several issues this session.

To contact Higdon or Carney, call the state’s legislative message line at (800) 372-7181.

Constituents can also reach Higdon at (270) 692-6945 or jimmy.higdon@lrc.ky.gov. Carney can also be reached at 465-5400 or or john.carney@lrc.ky.gov.  This year’s session is scheduled to adjourn March 26.