May 3, 2005 Gov. Charles W. Turnbull gave the never-ending saga of the Animal Cruelty bill its latest twist Tuesday, when he presented his own version of the legislation that he has vetoed twice in the last six months.
With Turnbull's action, the bill has become more of a political hot potato than ever, much to the dismay of Joe Elmore, Humane Society of St. Thomas executive director. The governor invited the minority bloc senators to Government House at 10 a.m. Tuesday to discuss the legislation.
After perusing the governor's legislation, Elmore said, "We don't look at this as an effort in good faith. We cannot accept this 11th hour attempt at sabotaging this bill that so many people have been working on for so long. The governor has never talked to us about it; he has never sought out professional opinion from the humane community."
Earlier in the day, Elmore had said he would wait and see what the governor's legislation contained.
One thing Turnbull's legislation did not contain was a ban on cockfighting, something the governor has roundly criticized in Donastorg's bill.
What the governor's bill did contain, Elmore found unacceptable in two major instances:
– It deletes a section under first-degree animal abuse which would make it a felony for anyone other than a licensed veterinarian to crop an animal's ears or to dock an animal's tail.
– It makes animal neglect in the first degree a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
"There is no way we can put our stamp of approval on this bill. We would lose credibility," Elmore said. "We are shocked about allowing anyone to crop animal's ears and tails. This is a brutal procedure. The governor has never mentioned it before in his objections to the bill. Where is he coming from with this? It's ridiculous. This is so blatant. The local veterinarians are against it. It's a felony in most animal cruelty legislation."
Elmore was equally incensed at reducing animal neglect to a misdemeanor. "This is too lenient. It would allow people to put horses out to starve to death after they have fulfilled their usefulness. They intentionally allow them to starve to death. We see it all the time."
This practice has become so prevalent on St. Thomas that a private group formed to alleviate the problem. The V.I. Community Cooperative Thoroughbred Retirement Effort raises funds to send mistreated horses to the Marion Country Correctional Institute in Lowell, Fla.
In his cover letter to Senate President Lorraine Berry, Turnbull, in summarizing his major changes to the original legislation, said he "removed the subsection that criminalized the cropping of any animal's ears or the docking of any animal's tail. There are qualified and experience individuals, who are not veterinarians that have been performing these procedures without any malicious intent."
– Decreased the time for imprisonment for first-degree animal cruelty from three to two years, and increased the fine from $1,000 to $2,000. He said the original imprisonment term was "too harsh."
– Changed animal neglect from a felony to a misdemeanor because it is not as serious a crime as animal abuse. He deleted imprisonment altogether, and increased the fine from "not exceeding $1,000" to "not exceeding $3,000," and included "up to 500 hours of community service."
– Reworded a section which included "anyone destroying a bird's nest or removing eggs from a nest," to read "anyone who maliciously" does so. He also changed the punishment from imprisonment not exceeding one year and a fine of $500 to "or a fine of $500."
– Changed the definition of "animal" to "not include any pest that might be exterminated." Turnbull had objected that the original bill left open the question of whether rodents would be protected in the law.
– Changed the time period of assisting an animal who is observed being confined without food or water from 12 hour to 24 hours.
– Changed from a possible lifetime ban to a possible 20-year ban for ever acting as a custodian of an animal for a person convicted of any offense as defined in the bill, at the discretion of the court.
The governor said members of his administration "stand ready to testify on this bill.'' No member of Turnbull's administration has officially attended any of the meetings or hearings on the bill. Should any administration representative testify, that would mean the bill would have to be sent to back to a committee, or, at the Senate president's call, to a Committee of the Whole hearing, starting the process anew.
It is not known who will introduce Turnbull's legislation, should it be special ordered in the regular session scheduled for Wednesday or Thursday. Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg said on the floor during Tuesday's Committee of the Whole meeting that he would move for an override of the governor's veto in the regular session Wednesday.
Turnbull invited the minority bloc senators to Government House on Tuesday morning to discuss his legislation. This marks the first time the governor has invited the group this term.
Elmore is relatively confident that the eight majority senators who voted for the bill in February will continue their support. However, he has no such feeling about the minority bloc. He has been lobbying the minority bloc for the votes needed for an override, which requires 10 votes. (See "Animal Cruelty Bill May Resurface Next Week.")
Sens. Craig Barshinger, Roosevelt David, Pedro Encarnacion, Louis Hill and Juan Figueroa Serville attended Tuesday's meeting, according to Barshinger. Sens. Neville James and Ronald Russell did not attend.
Barshinger said early Tuesday that he would vote for the override "if the governor's bill doesn't make it to the floor." He added, "Clearly, we have to send a message that we are in step with the 21st century."
After returning from Government House, and before seeing the governor's bill, Barshinger said, "My perception was that the governor was very serious and committed to the concept of humane treatment of animals."
Wednesday's session will get off to a late start. Berry has scheduled a Committee of the Whole meeting Wednesday from 9:30 a.m. to noon to precede the regular session. The committee will hear testimony from government officials on proposed legislation to amend the provisions of the Economic Development program.
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