Having moved from the field-house to the hoosegow, Michael Vick is living proof that Americans can’t stomach animal cruelty. But one man’s cruelty is another man’s animal husbandry or scientific research, and that’s something the Arkansas legislature wrestled with during recent deliberations.

The state’s new animal cruelty laws were largely initiated by Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, “who chose to take the animal cruelty issue on and try to find common ground between the two sides,” says Rodney Baker, a veteran lobbyist with the Arkansas Farm Bureau.

Last November, Arkansans voted to have the state legislature meet yearly instead of bi-annually. When he was interviewed in the third week of March, Baker said it was likely too late for more major legislation to be introduced.

Baker (who spoke at length about animal cruelty in a story a few years ago (see http://deltafarmpress.com/mag/farming_arkansas_rejects_animal/index.html), says during the latest debate many people “didn’t understand those of us opposed to a lot of the animal rights legislation over the past few years had also written a bill and introduced it for three sessions. That bill provided a felony provision for a number of heinous offenses. It included a (sterner) penalty for a second offense. Part of the concern was with young people doing something stupid or ill-advised, not habitual situations. We’ve all probably known of cases like that.”

Asked about specific concerns from agriculture about the bill, Baker points to the frequent problem of “abandoned and/or stray animals in the country. Most counties in the state have no program, or authority, to pick up strays. In some cases, there is a local humane group in a town — but they don’t have the resources to pick up strays in a rural setting.”

Under previous Arkansas law, there has been legal authority to dispose of such strays if they were threatening or hurting farm animals or people.

“If you live in rural Arkansas, you know when a bad situation is building. I had a friend in southern Arkansas who saw a group of stray dogs packing up. He left them alone. The next day, he heard something stirring in a shed adjacent to his yard where his grandchildren usually play. He got his shotgun and went out there. The first large dog he saw — one of four — lunged at him. He killed three out of four.

“Now, because the dog attacked him, he had legal privilege to kill them. Had he done that the day before — when he first realized a problem was developing — he wouldn’t have had legal privilege under the old law.”

The new law broadens reasonable expectation a bit. If harm is likely to occur, legal privilege is now granted.

“That doesn’t mean you can shoot your neighbor’s dog because you’re mad, but it does address concerns on the farm. This has been going on for decades. It isn’t a problem caused by farmers, but one they have to deal with that’s created by others who are abandoning animals.”

An escalator clause in the new law says, “if you’re convicted of a misdemeanor offense, you’ll spend a minimum of one day in jail with a $400 fine. After a second conviction, you’ll spend three or four days in jail with a $700 fine. (Penalties escalate) until the fourth conviction, when a felony can be charged,” against an accused habitual offender.

Asked about the timing of the current bill and outside animal rights groups becoming involved, Baker says there’s little doubt they had an influence.

“We’ve fought animal cruelty legislation for felony for decades. While the local groups working on this will seldom, if ever, admit it, we know the national (animal rights) groups are behind those who have lobbied heavily for it. The situation is that public opinion has been mounting on this particular issue because the media has pushed it. Frankly, the media has done a poor job locally of reporting all the facts. It was time to try and find middle ground, while possible.”

Exemptions to the cruelty law include animals used for research.

“We were concerned that medical research be protected. There are also provisions under veterinary practices that protect someone who has been taught to crop ears by their veterinarian. Under our Veterinary Practices Act, that’s considered surgery and only a vet can do it. But, in practice, some dog breeders do it themselves while their vet watches over the kennel. This law says that can’t be interpreted as cruelty.”

Using hunting dogs also isn’t considered cruelty under the new law. “You have to be careful how the provisions are written so they can’t be back-doored into something like hunting.”

Rice

In 1985, the Arkansas Legislature passed enabling legislation — later followed by a referendum of rice producers — to set up a rice check-off program for research, market development and promotion. Prior to that, a voluntary program with the Rice Council took care of market development, promotion and a rice research program.

Over the years, as legal challenges have come over technicalities with fund collections, there have been changes to the check-off program.

Today, “we have a program that collects 1.35 cents per bushel from producers in the state for research,” says Baker. “Also, 1.35 cents per bushel is collected from the buyer — mills or first point of sale — used for market development. It’s all administered by the Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board, which has nine farmer members appointed by the governor.”

During the current legislative session, several legislators, with the backing of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association (ARGA), proposed a bill advocating that farmer fund distribution be more flexible. Advocates of the new approach — aggrieved over a set of issues, including the use of the word “check-off” instead of “tax” (see: http://deltafarmpress.com/rice/rice-suit-0204/index.html) — weren’t without ammunition to fight for their cause. They claimed under the proposed law when a farmer sells rice, he’d assign his promotion dollars to the existing program or to other established rice entities. The approach would not touch money for research efforts.

Baker, backed by rice farmers who visited the legislature several times, said the proposal — which ultimately didn’t make it out of committee — was a bad idea. “If you start splitting money, it’ll split the existing program’s effectiveness. Secondly, you never know how much will go to each program year-to-year, which would make budgeting very difficult. Third, and one of the most important points from the Farm Bureau perspective, is that the state rice producers voted in a referendum to (set up the current system). And it was a large, favorable vote. Nothing has changed — the rice farmers haven’t voted for a change.”

Data shows that in Arkansas and other states that have retained the current “check-off” structure, “the rice acreage … has expanded and the industry has expanded. If you look at the states that have split up their promotion dollars, the same growth has not been experienced. We think that’s pretty telling.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com