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Updated Feb 19, 2014 - 2:27 pm

Arizona livestock cruelty bill moves forward

PHOENIX -- A bill championed by livestock producers but derided by animal-rights activists as an ``ag gag'' bill because it aims to reign in their undercover activities won approval from an Arizona Senate panel Wednesday.

The Senate Natural Resources and Rural Affairs Committee approved the proposal billed as a crackdown on animal cruelty on a 7-2 vote. The bill sponsored by Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, toughens animal-cruelty penalties and adds provisions cracking down on hoarding. But it lowers those penalties from a felony to a misdemeanor for owners of livestock facilities.

The Arizona Cattlemen's Association argues the lower penalty is justified because their members can also lose their licenses.

``There is no break,'' said Patrick Bray, executive vice president of the cattlemen's group. ``We are held to a different standard under government. So not only will you be charged with animal cruelty, but you most likely lose the license to operate.''

Bray also defended the provisions in Senate Bill 1267 that require undercover investigators from animal-rights groups to turn them over to law enforcement within five days, saying the industry wants to stop violations quickly.

``The problem with what we see around the country with those things happening is they choose to videotape it for the course of months,'' Bray said. ``Then they hold the videotape and release it on a slow news day.''

Karen Michael, a member of the Animal Defense League of Arizona who has done undercover investigations of slaughterhouses, said the livestock industry is not revealing its real motives for backing the bill.

``These ag-gag bills were made to punish those who exposed cruelty,'' Michael said.

The industry proposed legislation in 15 states last year, none of which passed, to make it illegal to go onto livestock facilities to covertly film, she said. Utah passed a law in 2012 criminalizing the activity.

The industry has now moved on to a tactic of pushing ``quick-reporting'' rules, Michael said.

``What that does is it prevents those that expose cruelty from developing a pattern,'' she said. ``What's disingenuous about that is that it is being done under the pretense of animal protections.''

Pierce, who is also a rancher, sharply questioned opponents of the quick-reporting requirement. He said if their real goal was to prevent suffering they would want it stopped immediately.

The House adopted a similar bill, HB2587, last week.

A Pima County prosecutor and a Scottsdale police officer testified that putting the authority for all livestock investigations in the hands of the understaffed agriculture department was a major problem. They noted that with less than a dozen officers statewide, the department can't respond to calls.

Outside the livestock provisions, which also shifts enforcement of livestock violations to the state Agriculture Department, the Senate bill adds hoarding provisions for household pets and allows a judge to require a psychological assessment. A person convicted more than once of animal cruelty can also be barred from owning animals.

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