State lawmakers agreed to create special exemptions from animal cruelty laws for farmers and ranchers despite complaints that it would ease penalties on those who abuse and beat farm animals to death.

The 33-24 vote came after Rep. Brenda Barton, R-Payson, agreed to remove two of the provisions from HB 2587 that foes considered most onerous – and that likely would have condemned the measure to failure.

One would have stripped police departments entirely of the power to investigate any allegations of cruelty against livestock, giving that exclusively to the state Department of Agriculture. That would have included not only what occurs on a ranch but even stopped police investigation of those who abuse the horses, goats and sheep they raise in their back yards.

That provoked a firestorm of protest from police and prosecutors, including Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio whose agency has prioritized animal cruelty complaints and Deputy Pima County Attorney Kathleen Mayer who said it would allow ranchers to mistreat working dogs without fear of police intervention.

The new language retains the right of police to investigate. Instead, it requires only that law enforcement notify state agriculture officials of any abuse complaints involving farmers and ranchers and permitting that agency to participate – or not – in the inquiry.

Also gone is a mandate that anyone with a video, photograph or other evidence of cruelty must turn that over to the Department of Agriculture within five days or risk jail time and a fine. Animal rights groups said that language could have thwarted undercover investigations.

But Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the measure remains unacceptable.

“This bill makes it a misdemeanor on a first offense to intentionally torture to death an animal,” he said, with a penalty of six months in jail and a $2,500 fine if it is a farm animal. He said that makes no sense, pointing out that is the same penalty for someone who is illegally loitering or bring a glass bottle into a city park.

Existing laws make many forms of abuse of any animal, farm or domestic, a felony with potentially two years in state prison and a $150,000 fine.

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, said there are many good things in the measure. For example, she said this legislation would allow a judge to prevent someone who has abused an animal from owning another one. It also expands the definition of animal abuse to include “hoarding,” having so many animals that none of them are safe.

But Brophy McGee said none of those changes could get the necessary votes unless the measure addressed the concerns of ranchers and farmers that they would not be prosecuted for what might be normal agricultural practices. She also said colleagues were wrong in trying to equate the standards for farm animals with those of domestic pets.

“The last thing the agriculture community wants to see is a bad operator torturing animals,” Brophy McGee said. And she said while a first offense would be reduced to a misdemeanor, repeat offenders would be subject to felony prosecution.

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who said he was raised on a dairy farm, echoed the sentiment that there really need to be two standards for animal abuse.

“These are not the same animals as Fifi that Paris Hilton is carrying around,” he said.

But Mayer said the measure remains unacceptable because of the exceptions for farmers and ranchers.

“It's fundamentally bad public policy to carve out a separate criminal code for people based on their profession,” she said. “That's not equal treatment under the law.”

Mayer also said she is not convinced the language about torture of animals is sufficiently clear to allow prosecution of ranchers. Kavanagh agreed.

He said a rancher or famer cannot be prosecuted for “normal, good husbandry practices” used in the production of food or involving a “work animal.” Kavanagh said there are no definitions of what that might allow.

The measure now goes to the Senate.

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