Bill targets mistreatment of livestock

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

LINCOLN, Nebraska -- Law enforcement officers could seize mistreated livestock with a veterinarian's recommendation if an Agriculture Committee bill is passed.

Rick Leonard, the committee's research analyst, presented the bill (LB423) at a hearing Tuesday. Six people testified in support of the bill, and one testified against it. The committee also received a letter of support from the Humane Society of the United States.

Under the bill, owners of mistreated livestock would also pay for any expense for that animal after seizure until the courts decided whether to charge the owner. If found not guilty, the owner would be reimbursed.

"The ultimate goal is to safeguard animal welfare by assuring that owners and custodians fulfill the responsibilities to these livestock," Leonard said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha questioned whether animals would ever need to remain in distress.

Robert Hallstrom, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Bankers Association, said the point of the bill was to help these animals as soon as possible.

In extreme cases, however, law enforcement could euthanize the mistreated animal, Hallstrom said.

Leonard said the bill could also lead to resolving the mistreatment sooner and limit the amount of money spent by local governments caring for mistreated animals.

Jessica Kolterman, director of state governmental relations for the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, echoed him, saying the bill could give local governments guidelines for how to handle mistreated animals.

Kristen Hassebrook, lobbyist for Nebraska Cattlemen, added that local governments could avoid becoming overburdened with financing care for these seized animals.

Amy Prenda, lobbyist for the Nebraska Sheriffs Association, said that it comes down to who is assuming the cost.

In one instance, a local government paid a total of about $26,000 to care for mistreated horses that had been seized for five months, she said.

Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte expressed concern about the condition of the drought on the grazing grass that is a significant portion of cattle feed. People may not know what to do when they cannot find feed, he said.

The bankers could be the first line of defense before those situations become problematic because they conduct regular inspections of properties with loans, Hallstrom said.

Bern Janezen, vice president of the Nebraska Farmer's Union, shared an opposing testimony written by the president of the group, John Hansen, who could not be present at the hearing.

Janezen shared the story of a member of the organization who was charged with mistreating livestock in 2011 because horses were losing weight.

The veterinarian could not explain why, and the law enforcement officers and humane society thought it was due to starvation, he said.

But the hay the owner had been using contained blister beetle toxins, which caused the weight loss, he said.

With experiences such as this in mind, Janezen offered a number of suggestions to the proposed bill, including first determining whether the problem was medical or criminal.

The practices for determining medical issues for livestock need to improve, he said.

He added that the bill should require consideration of the ability to pay the fine because that is already done for a wide range of fines.

Law enforcement officers in some areas may not have the expertise to know when an animal is mistreated, he said. He suggested offering resources for these officers to use before taking action.

He also questioned whether these problems should be taken to criminal or civil court and if additional tax money was necessary.

"We need to be willing to spend additional tax dollars, if necessary, in order to both properly deal with these issues when they occur while also protecting people's private property rights and civil liberties," Janezen said.

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