Our movement achieved a remarkable milestone last week, with South Dakota becoming the 50th state to adopt felony-level penalties for malicious cruelty to animals (The bill also makes cockfighting a felony offense). A couple of our founding fathers (Washington and Jefferson) and their heirs (Lincoln and Roosevelt), represented by Mount Rushmore in the state, must have cracked a smile in their granite facades, since it marks a moment in the growth of civility and the rule of law in our society.
Establishing serious penalties for malicious cruelty has been a top priority for the HSUS over the last quarter century, and the enactment of the South Dakota statute closes out an important element of our quest for universal opposition to cruelty. I’ve long believed that our movement is grounded on anti-cruelty principles, and the enshrining in the law of meaningful penalties for cruelty is a foundation stone for the acceptance of our ideals.
In this case, the effort in South Dakota to pass the bill was led by South Dakota State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven. There were a broad array of stakeholders involved, including livestock groups, law enforcement officials, veterinarians, local animal control officials, along with animal welfare supporters. Darci Adams, HSUS’s state director in South Dakota, called it a “great day for animals in the state.”
The stage for enactment of this measure was set after a 2012 ballot initiative in neighboring North Dakota that we launched to make that state the 49th to adopt felony-level penalties for cruelty to animals. Voters there rejected the measure, but only after our adversaries promised to enact an even more comprehensive measure against cruelty in the legislature. That bill was passed in 2013. Then, with South Dakota standing alone among the states, and with people talking about a potential HSUS ballot initiative there, the stage was set for action in the state. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed the bill into law late last week.
No one wants to stand out on cruelty to animals issues, and that’s how things played out some years ago with our campaign to outlaw cockfighting in all the states. We conducted ballot measures in Arizona, Missouri, and Oklahoma to outlaw cockfighting some years ago, and that left only Louisiana and New Mexico with legal cockfighting. Then Governor Bill Richardson led the fight to ban cockfighting in his state in 2007, and Louisiana followed suit, after a strong HSUS campaign, with that ban coming into effect in 2008.
Prior to 1986, only four states had felony animal cruelty laws. Only about a dozen states had felony-level penalties for dogfighting, and about a half-dozen had felony penalties for cockfighting. But today, all 50 states and the federal government treat dogfighting as a felony offense. In 2008, a year after the Michael Vick case came to light, Idaho and Wyoming adopted felony-level penalties for dogfighting, at the urging of The HSUS.
We at HSUS have had a lot of monumental accomplishments, but this is surely one of the biggest. It’s a moment to celebrate our gains, and to look ahead to the goals we as a movement want to achieve in the years ahead.