A House panel agreed Tuesday to stiffen penalties for those who abuse pets, but only after carving out what essentially amounts to special treatment – and looser regulations – for farmers and ranchers.

On one hand, HB 2587 tightens some language which Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, said has allowed abusers to escape punishment. For example, she said it requires animals to have access to water “suitable for drinking” rather than just water that may be moldy, and shelter “appropriate for the animal or weather condition.”

And it outlaws animal “hoarding,” having so many as to leave them in danger.

But the legislation strips state and local police of any power to investigate abuse of farm animals and chickens, requiring complaints instead be made to the Department of Agriculture. Deputy Pima County Attorney Kathleen Mayer said that made no sense.

“We don't have a livestock officer for even each county,” she told members of the Committee on Agriculture and Water. “Essentially it feels like livestock is telling local law enforcement what crimes they can investigate and what crimes they can't.”

Mayer also said many of the complaints she sees – and her office prosecutes – don't involve ranchers but instead individuals who own horses, sheep, goats and even poultry. She said there is no reason to take local police and sheriff's deputies out of the loop.

A separate concern was raised about a provision which would require anyone with photographs, videos or other evidence of animal abuse to turn that over to authorities within five days or risk a fine and possible jail time.

Karen Michael, on the board of the Animal Defense League, said that would interfere with undercover investigations. She said the videos produced and made public eventually resulted in Arizona voters outlawing cockfighting in 1998 and a 2006 measure which makes it illegal to house calves raised for veal or pregnant pigs in pens where they cannot lie down and fully extend their limbs or turn around.

But Rep. Brenda Barton, R-Payson, the prime sponsor of the legislation, said nothing in this provision outlaws undercover investigations.

“The intention is to ensure the allegations are investigated in a timely manner and to prevent further abuse and further animal suffering,” she said.

McGee, who helped craft the legislation, acknowledged that providing special treatment for the farming and ranching community is essentially a necessary political compromise.

She said there were efforts last year to update the definitions in the animal abuse laws and establish appropriate penalties for neglect and abuse.

“But the legislation failed last year because we could not adapt it to the legal, humane, commercial activities of Arizona ranchers, farmers, fairs, 4-H students,” she said. And without a sign-off by the agriculture community, the changes were doomed.

That, she said, meant living with the laws that allow someone who provides a flagpole as “shelter,” or someone who places a water dish out of reach of an animal, to escape cruelty laws. And she lashed out at animal rights groups for trying to kill the entire measure because of “an absolute unwillingness to compromise.”

In an effort to defuse opposition, Barto amended the bill to allow – but not require – the Department of Agriculture to work with local law enforcement and even essentially deputize them to do investigations. Mike Williams representing the Arizona Police Association said there needs to be clear authority of police to act when appropriate, with or without the blessing of the state agency.

Mayer said other problems remain. She said legislation says the laws that protect dogs as pets would not apply to those working on ranches.

“The exemption would allow me to beat my dog with impunity,” Mayer said.

And Rep. Rosanna Gabaldon, D-Green Valley, said she did not like the fact that some acts of abuse of farm animals that now are felonies would be reduced to misdemeanors.

But Tom Miller, executive director of the Arizona Pork Council, said the concern about commercial farmers and ranchers is misplaced.

“If you stop and think about it, if you're raising pigs, beef, any of these livestock for a living, there is no reason at all you would allow them to be mistreated,” he told lawmakers.

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