In a state entrenched in agriculture and the outdoors, the post-mortem of Initiated Act 1 — more commonly known as the Arkansas Animal Cruelty Act — shows the proposed law went down in flames. The act, placed on the Arkansas ballot through a petition drive, would have created a felony provision for animal cruelty in the state.

So what happened? In August the act seemed destined for success. Polls showed some 60 percent of Arkansans were in support of the measure with around 26 percent opposed. By early September, pollsters found that support was at 59 percent. In mid-October, support had dwindled to 52 percent. Days later, the Arkansas News Bureau did a poll that showed support was down to 50 percent. Then, just a few days before the election, another poll showed 45 percent for and 44 percent against.

Once the votes were cast, though, the act was resoundingly defeated with over 62 percent voting against it.

Many suspect monetary donations from out-of-state “radical” animal rights groups put the act on shaky ground. The Arkansas coalition that formed against the act then provided the killing stroke. In the lead-up to the vote, several issues were hit on constantly by opponents of the act: regionalism, radicalism, and the slippery slope.

The set up

Language in the act says felony charges could be brought against anyone who “knowingly tortures, mutilates, maims, burns, poisons or maliciously kills, starves or disfigures any animal.”

Punishments for the above would result in a Class D felony which could mean up to a six-year prison term and a $10,000 fine. In addition, cockfighting and dog-fighting would be felonies and repeated misdemeanor violations could become felonies.

Currently, cruelty to animals is a Class A misdemeanor that could result in a year of jail and a $1,000 fine.

“Look, this is nothing new. It's come up many times already — at least six times in the last 17 years in the state legislature. Generally, this topic is characterized by a felony provision for animal abuse. In this case, the term used was ‘aggravated animal cruelty.’ That was defined as torturing, mutilating, burning or other horrible things done to an animal. No one argues those kinds of things shouldn't be opposed,” says Rodney Baker, an Arkansas Farm Bureau lobbyist who ran key opposition to the act.

The escalator clause

What Baker and others did oppose were some of the other provisions in the bill. One of the things that especially bothered Baker was the “escalator clause” in the proposed legislation.

“That stated that any second misdemeanor animal cruelty offense would automatically be a felony. There was no time limit on that, which is simply radical. So, say you're 18 and get a misdemeanor for animal cruelty and then 50 years later you're guilty of another misdemeanor, it means you're a felon. That's ridiculous,” says Baker.

The defeat of the act is very important to farmers, say opponents. Farmers know all too well that in rural areas, one-time pets are often dumped. These animals tend to pack up and become nuisances.

So, here's a scenario Baker says could have occurred: a farmer kills a stray and someone sees this happen. The farmer can then be arrested. The second time he does it, he's a felon.

“These aren't cases where someone is trying to be cruel or headed toward becoming a mass murderer. This is a farmer trying to watch out for his property and livelihood,” says Baker.

Exemptions, game laws

Proponents of the law did place exemptions for agriculture, hunting and fishing into the act. The exemptions would apply to “normal, accepted agricultural” practices. The problem is “normal, accepted practices” aren't defined.

“There's nothing that says how it would be defined, who would make that determination, how new technology would become accepted and old technology become unacceptable,” says Baker.

It also didn't help when quotes from leaders of animal rights groups started appearing in opponent ads. One quote, attributed to Mike Markarian, executive vice president of The Fund for Animals (which contributed $25,000 towards getting the act passed) said, “We don't support the killing of wildlife for recreation.”

Baker and his coalition-mates sprang.

“It was easy to find such statements from these groups. We used some of them in our ads. They've said if they could stop sport hunting in one minute, they would. They wrote up that this law wouldn't apply to the ‘lawful taking of game.’ If you're specifying that, then you're saying that the unlawful taking of game is subject to the new proposed cruelty law.”

The game laws are designed to manage the state's herd, say opponents. They aren't meant to define what's cruel or not.

“If you shoot a deer a day earlier than the hunting season begins, you should be punished under the state game laws. But shooting one a day earlier isn't any more cruel than shooting it during the season. The act of hunting is the same.

“These folks were trying to finagle a mechanism where they could find the right case, go into court and say, ‘Okay, this guy shot a deer out of season, and we think it was particularly cruel.’ If the right judge and prosecutor are in place to establish case law, a foot in door occurs.”

In such cases, asked opponents, would someone be arrested under state game laws or under the cruelty laws? Many suggest there was an attempt by the act to supercede state games laws.

“It isn't like this stuff hasn't happened. There was a case in the Carolinas last November where a teenager was actually arrested for shooting two squirrels with a BB gun. A neighbor called the police. The police arrived, put the kid in handcuffs, took him to jail where he spent the night and charged him with a felony. All this over two squirrels! In the end, he wasn't convicted of the charge, but this is how it could be applied,” says Baker.

There is no denying that the proposed law was heavily supported by national animal rights groups. This obviously didn't play well with Arkansas voters.

“There's a variety of reasons to be wary of these groups,” says Baker. “These groups have demonstrated in front of fast food restaurants to push them into buying meat products raised in a certain way. Chickens must have a certain amount of space to be raised, cows must have this and pigs must have that.

“Well, when enough buyers only accept meat products raised in a certain way, then the case can be made in the courts that what came before is no longer ‘normal or accepted.’ So these radicals could come in and say, ‘McDonalds no longer buys chicken raised like this. You're still going with antiquated husbandry practices, and we're going to court to stop you.’ And they'd have this law to point to.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) endorsed the act but didn't put money into the campaign. Still, the specter of such a group being involved in the act was pointed to gleefully and repeatedly by opponents.

Among the groups who put money up to get the act passed were: the Humane Society of the U.S. — “not a sheltering group, but an animal rights group with an admitted anti-hunting, anti-agricultural agenda,” says Baker; The Fund for Animals; Doris Day Animal League and a number of others. The total put in was about $200,000 with some 84 percent of the money coming from out-of-state groups, claim opponents.

Regionalism

Baker admits that Arkansans, like most Southerners, are notoriously suspicious of radical outsiders getting involved in state business. When such groups came into the state, opponents seized the opportunity to point a finger.

“It ceased to be such a grass-roots campaign when these folks rolled in with their money,” says Baker. “When that happened, it was fair game.”

Were the nay votes more of a repudiation of these groups or more a reaction to fear?

“I think it was a combination. I think when we exposed that this much money was coming from out of state, Arkansans became very leery.”

There was also a broad coalition of groups inside Arkansas that formed against the act. Among them was the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association, Arkansas Catfish Producers, Arkansas Pork Producers, Fraternal Order of Police, the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences (frightened the proposed law would endanger medical research), State Sheriff's Association, the County Judges Association of Arkansas, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl, the State Chamber of Commerce, Remington Arms and the Arkansas Bowhunters Association.

“This obviously wasn't just farmers and hunters. The coalition added credibility and weight to what we were saying about what this law could mean,” says Baker.

Citizens for a Humane Arkansas — the Arkansas group pushing the act — tried to distance the proposed law from the outside animal rights groups.

“They claimed the coalition against this was saying it was guilt by association. I'll tell you straight: when these radical groups put up 84 percent of the money used to campaign for this, they aren't just associated in it, they're clear participants.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.