By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. - At least one member of the Alabama Senate committee that approved a bill opponents claim takes state animal abuse laws backwards said he wants to see the legislation die.
“My goal right now is to not let this come up on the floor,” Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, told Alabama Daily News.
Senate Bill 196 says those who file animal abuse complaints that aren't substantiated can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor. It also puts responsibility for most abuse investigations on the Alabama Department of Agriculture and allows money raised by non-profit animal groups to go toward the fees abusers must pay.
A co-sponsor on the bill, Sen. David Sessions, R-Grand Bay, said it was designed to protect farmers, particularly cattle ranchers, from bogus claims of abuse. Sessions is on the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee member.
"My main concern is protecting agriculture in this state and keeping groups like the humane society and PETA out of the agriculture business," Sessions said. "They sure love to insert themselves and I don’t appreciate it. As a farmer myself, I don’t appreciate it."
Senate leadership has also signaled that it is unlikely the bill as currently written will get a vote. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he's asked the Senate rules chairman, the gatekeeper between bills and floor votes, to put a hold on this one.
“I've got a lot of animal rights folks in my district that have called me ... I'm curious what's in this bill.
... That bill, for right now, is not moving anywhere."
Senate Bill 196 is sponsored by Sen. Jack Williams, R-Mobile, and would allow for criminal penalties for those who submit frivolous complaints alleging an animal enterprise has engaged in animal cruelty. The definition of animal enterprise includes "any person regularly deriving any revenue from any animal related business, charity, or organization."
The 12-page bill said convicted abusers have to pay for the impounding, feeding and veterinary care of the animals taken from them. It also says any money raised by non-profits for those animals' care can be deducted from what the abuser owes.
Sessions said he doesn't expect the bill to gain any traction this session.
"I don’t think it will go anywhere this year but it gives us a kind of starting point and a talking point," Sessions said.
Sessions said he wants to make sure those checking animal abuse claims are people who understand livestock production, like the department of agriculture.
"I think the gist of the legislation was to make sure that the agriculture department is the one who goes out and sees if these animals are being mistreated and if not people should not be filing complaints because they really don’t know what they’re doing," Sessions said. "...I think Williams was just trying to bring this to light that we don’t need people coming in from outside the state coming in and telling us we can’t raise our livestock."
Senate Bill 169 would require the department of agriculture to provide reporting and investigative work into the alleged animal cruelty reports.
Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Rick Pate told ADN that the Alabama Department of Agricultural and Industries was not consulted in the creation of William’s bill and it would rather stay out of any further involvement with the legislation.
“We had no involvement and we have no interest in being involved,” Pate said.
Pate said the bill would require additional funding and and resources for the department and investigating animal cruelty is not something the department normally handles.
“Even if (legislators) do provide the revenue, it’s like changing our mission and what we do here,” Pate said.
A spokesperson from the Alabama Farmers Federation told ADN that they had no involvement with the creation of the bill.
In a Facebook post urging people to call lawmakers and oppose the bill, Allison Black Cornelius, chief executive officer for the Great Birmingham Humane Society, said the bill could shut down shelters.
“I call it the animal abuser protection act,” she said.
She said the Greater Birmingham Humane Society gets up to 300 calls a week about potential animal abuse.
The bill also says any municipal or county ordinances or rules regarding an animal enterprise "is declared to be invalid and of no effect."
The bill said an investigating agency that finds alleged animal abuse may give the animal enterprise 10 business days to correct the alleged abuse and "only the individual animals demonstrated to the court as being in danger of "imminent death or severe physical injury" may be subject to seizure..."
It was passed out of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry committee on Thursday with an 8-1 vote.
Gudger said he would have expressed his concerns on the bill at the meeting, but the vote had already been taken before he got there.
“We tried to voice our opinion but I didn’t even get to because they ran through it in the meeting before I could even get there,” Gudger said. “As a member of the agriculture committee, I was very displeased and upset by that.”
Williams and Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, chairman of that committee and a co-sponsor on the bill, did not return calls for comment.
Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, is on the committee and didn't say he fully supports the bill as it is now, but wants to continue the discussion on protecting farmers in Alabama.
"The reason I’m in favor of seeing it move out of committee is to generate discussion about it and I want to make sure we’re being fair to the agricultural segment in the state," Stutts told ADN.
Stutts also referenced a recent case in Tuscumbia where a man was arrested on charges of animal cruelty and failure to burn or bury livestock after two of his cows were found dead in his field, as reported by Times Daily.
Stutts, who also raises cattle, said he thought the charges the man is facing are too severe.
"The guy who owned the cows was out of town because of his truck driving job," Stutts said. "I take first-class care of my cows but I had a cow that died two weeks ago and I was not there to dispose of her until about 30 hours after she died."
Stutts said he wants to prevent animal cruelty from happening but also wants to be fair to the agriculture community in the state.
"There is no farmer that wants any of his livestock to die," Stutts said. "They need to take good care of them but the fact is that things happen and I don’t think it ought to be prosecuted if you’re providing the care that they need."
Gudger says the bill would not protect animals in the state and has the potential to hurt animal shelters and humane societies across the state who deal with animal cruelty complaints.
“Some of the shelters I talked to in Montgomery would have to shut down if this bill passes,” Gudger said. “It would be a mass exodus of shelters leaving the state because they might be under criminal penalty by just reporting there was cruelty to a dog or animal.”
Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, said he abstained from voting on the bill in committee.
“I don’t anticipate being able to vote for the bill without some major changes first,” Jones told ADN.
Thomas Sahm is the program and office manager at the Tuscaloosa Metro Animal Shelter and said this kind of legislation will make it harder to protect animals being abused.
"Punishing people who report cruelty is probably going to make it more difficult to get people to report cruelty," Sahm told ADN.
Sahm said that having the Department of Agriculture investigate these claims also doesn't make sense logistically.
"Making the investigative arm under the agriculture department, it doesn’t seem very feasible or practical, because the organization that’s going to be best equipped for those types of things is going to be the local police or law enforcement," Sahm said.
Anne Caldwell, CEO of the Greater Huntsville Humane Society, said she is concerned that the bill would hurt those reporting abuse claims in good faith.
"If a concerned member of our community reported, in good faith, what they believed to be animal cruelty and it was found that they were wrong, that individual could be forced to pay a fine that is equal to the sum of whatever was spent on the investigation," Caldwell told ADN. "It is my fear that because of this, fewer instances of animal cruelty/neglect will ever be reported. Resulting in animals never being taken to safety."
Caldwell also said that since the bill fails to adequately define the term "animal enterprise" and could unfairly conflate the work of animal breeders and larger livestock operations.