Nov. 27, 2004 With one quick flick of his veto pen, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull this week defeated legislation on which animal advocates, community groups and humane societies in the territory have worked for years.
The legislation would bring the territory in step with most other jurisdictions under the American flag which make animal abuse a felony.
Though Turnbull's transmittal letter to Senate President David Jones was dated Tuesday, it was not released to the public until late Friday.
Turnbull's veto was greeted with astonishment and dismay by many in the community. Hubert Brumant, Humane Society of St. Thomas animal care manager, said, "It's frightening. I don't know what is in his mind vetoing anything that has to do with animal cruelty. Its ridiculous. We thought he was going to approve it. It passed the Senate with flying colors. Its a very saddening thing."
Animal activist Randy Knight, owner of Knight Quality Stations, said Turnbull's action "shows a disregard for the people that would be enforcing the law, and for the 15 senators who voted for it." He said, "It is not a perfect bill; very rarely is there a perfect bill. It is a stepping stone to use and to become an even more comprehensive document in the future."
Joe Aubain, Humane Society of St. Thomas board president, said, "The governor truly missed this opportunity to diminish violence in the territory."
Brumant said cockfighting "could be a different issue. We could have an amendment to the bill," he said. "He has the authority, so we have to respect that, but the amount of work that went in to the bill and so many concerns from the public that we listened to and injected in the bill .I don't know what to say, but I'm very disappointed."
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, was passed unanimously by the Senate in September, after years of being bandied about from committee to committee, never reaching the floor. Since 2000, it has suffered various fates, none of them much better than the fates of the animals the legislation seeks to protect.
Turnbull labeled sections of the bill "overreaching and draconian." He cited an instance of a person removing an egg from a bird's nest being subjected to a year in prison. He also was critical of a portion of the bill which allows a person to trespass on another person's property to administer food and water to an animal which has gone hungry for at least 12 hours.
"I am not in favor of what is tantamount to legalizing trespass under the color of providing aid to an animal in distress," Turnbull said. "This not only opens the door to legal issues, but it goes draconian when it has an absolute lifetime ban against owning an animal if the person is convicted of certain animal abuses."
In fact, the legislation states a ban on a "period of up to five years from the date a person is sentenced for animal neglect in the second degree," or "up to a lifetime of the person convicted, in the discretion of the court." The section also demands court-ordered counseling to "evaluate and treat behavior or conduct disorders" and suggests a "sliding fee scale based on the defendant's ability to pay."
Turnbull also hit on cockfighting. He said, "while dog fighting is rightfully banned in this bill, it is noteworthy that the bill specifically and selectively excludes cockfighting as a form of animal abuse. I will find it difficult to sign a bill against animal cruelty that does not include and identify cockfighting as a form of animal abuse."
Cockfighting has always been a sensitive issue. Paul Chakroff, former director of the St. Croix Animal Welfare Shelter executive director, Donastorg and other animal advocates, after intensive deliberation, decided not to include a ban on cockfighting in the legislation because it is a surefire way to kill it. It defeated the bill in a former session. (See "Pickard-Samuel, Bryan Kill Animal Rights Bill").
They reasoned that the most important thing, at this stage, was to get this legislation passed.
Chakroff, speaking as a private citizen Saturday, said eliminating cockfighting may have been a mistake. "I think it should have been included instead of waiting for another day, another fight," he said. "I know everyone doesn't agree with me. The governor's objection is a good argument for getting it included."
Donastorg has said including cockfighting could prove a conflict for the government, which issues licenses for cockfighting. Donastorg was unavailable for comment Saturday.
Chakroff, who is passionate about animal protection he hosted the territory's first Caribbean
Caribbean Animal Welfare Conference earlier this year said he was disheartened at the news, and said the veto possibly could have been avoided with better language in the bill. "Unfortunately, the governor used a few weak passages as an excuse to veto the whole thing," he said. "I'm very upset the bill failed. There was language that could have been better written, and that could have been done through an amendment. This legislation represents the work of many years by many people.
"As it was, it was ramrodded through," he said. "A few very minor changes in language could have cleared up the issues Turnbull mentioned. I think his interpretation of the bird's nest is an extreme interpretation of the language. I think law enforcement and animal control officers are reasonable people. They would use common sense," he said. "It is going to be hard to encompass every little detail; you have to presume a level of common sense being exercised."
Aubain, in a release issued by the Humane Society Friday, urged senators to override the governor's veto. "In a first for the territory, every senator offered insight, deliberation and support of this animal cruelty bill," he said. (See "Humane Society Urges Senate to Override Veto").
Joe Elmore, shelter executive director said, "We are disappointed the governor did not engage the community in open dialogue about the bill, following the lead of the Senate." He listed the reasons for an override, including the bill's overwhelming support in the territory and its unanimous approval by the Senate.
Additionally, Elmore said, "The executive branch was absent during important hearings on the legislation, and did not hear the overwhelming data supporting the linkage between domestic abuse and animal abuse."
"We urge the Senate to move forward on this bill [override]," Aubain said. Neither Aubain nor Elmore was available for further comment Saturday.
There may be some trouble with an override. Jones said Saturday that he was not calling another session this term. "Most people are traveling or going away on vacation. There's a transition period right now," he said. "The next Legislature can take up those issues."
A session of the now lame-duck 25th Legislature could possibly still be called if a majority of senators petition Jones to do so.
Donastorg is one of three Democratic senators who broke away from the party to join the new majority headed by Sen. Lorraine Berry. Turnbull also vetoed legislation by Berry, and by Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, the third Democrat in the new non-partisan majority.
Turnbull could have line-item vetoed the bill, because it establishes an Animal Abuse Fund, which appropriates an annual $100,000 from the General Fund. To line-item veto legislation, it must contain a fiscal appropriation.
For details on the bill and the penalties it called for, see "V.I. Animal Cruelty May Finally Be a Thing of the Past").
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