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Nebraska animal abuse bill gets cool reception

3/13/2013 5:45 PM
By Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A Nebraska bill that would require anyone to report animal cruelty within 24 hours faced an onslaught of criticism Wednesday, with opponents calling it a disingenuous attempt to keep animal rights groups from exposing abuse.

Animal rights advocates urged lawmakers to reject a measure, which is similar to other bills touted by the American Legislative Exchange Council — a conservative think tank backed by big business interests. The bill would require incidents of animal abuse to be reported within 24 hours of taking place, but animal rights groups say it would cripple their ability to document patterns of abuse.

The issue has caught the attention of prominent animal rights advocates, including former "The Price is Right" host Bob Barker, who sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee last week urging its members to kill the proposal.

The bill would require anyone who witnesses animal abuse to file a written report to authorities within 24 hours, and turn over any video, photograph or audio evidence. It also would create penalties for anyone who makes a false statement when applying for a job at an animal facility, if they intend to damage the business or interfere with its operations.

Sen. Ernie Chambers called the bill "atrocious" during a legislative hearing on Wednesday, and ACLU lobbyist Alan Peterson said the measure was "the most blatantly unconstitutional approach to lawmaking" that he had ever seen. Peterson said the bill violates free speech rights, protections against unreasonable search and seizures, due-process safeguards and protections against self-incrimination.

"This is terrible," Peterson said. "This is just awful, and frankly it's disingenuous to say you're trying to protect animals — unless you regard the Koch brothers as animals."

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee reviewed the bill Wednesday afternoon. The Legislature's Agriculture Committee killed a similar bill last year.

The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill, said the groups often circulate the footage online for their own fundraising and political gain. Critics of the undercover operations also argue that the videos seek to portray farm producers unfairly, and turn Americans against meat consumption.

"If you see abuse, you should want it to stop as soon as possible," Larson said. "For them to say you have to get documented evidence before you can report abuse — that's just them trying to serve their own interests for political gain. What do they care more about — protecting the animals, or furthering a cause?"

Iowa approved a similar measure last year with bipartisan support.

Barker, 89, grew up on South Dakota's Rosebud Indian Reservation along the Nebraska border, and often visited Valentine, Neb., as a child.

"These ridiculous, unsavory laws are being pushed in various states all over the country," Barker said by phone from Los Angeles. "There's only one purpose for any and all of them, and that's to protect people who are committing animal cruelty. We're doing everything we can to stop them ... and I hope they don't pass them in Nebraska."

Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis questioned whether the measure would overwhelm rural law enforcement agencies with reports. But Davis, a western Nebraska rancher, said he was also concerned that meat processors would use the law to suppress undercover operations.

Critics say the bill is designed to undermine undercover operations that expose animal abuse, because activists generally need to document a pattern of abuse before law enforcement will act.

"One thing that happens is that bad becomes normal, and there is an eroding of behavior that can happen," said Monica Engebretson, a senior program associate for the group Born Free USA. "Passing laws to prevent whistle-blowing is not the way to go."

Federal regulators shut down a California slaughterhouse in August after receiving an undercover video that showed dairy cows — some unable to walk — being repeatedly shocked and shot before they were slaughtered. The action by the U.S. Department of Agriculture came after the agency received hours of videotape from Compassion Over Killing, an animal welfare group that embedded an investigator at the facility. The investigator made the video over a two-week period in June.

Four minutes of excerpts released to The Associated Press at the time showed cows being prepared for slaughter. One worker appeared to be suffocating a cow by standing on its muzzle, after a gun that injects a bolt into the animal's head failed to render it unconscious. In another clip, a cow was still conscious and flailing as a conveyor lifted it by one leg for transport to an area where the animals' throats are slit for blood draining.

In November, the U.S. Humane Society of the United States announced a settlement in its lawsuit against another California processing company, Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. The group filed a federal lawsuit in 2009, after releasing another undercover video that showed "downer cows" — those too weak or sick to walk — being dragged by chains, rammed by forklifts and sprayed with high-pressure water by employees who wanted them to stand and walk to slaughter.

The video sparked a recall of 143 million pounds of beef, including 37 million pounds that had gone to school lunch programs. The recall cost taxpayers $150 million.

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The bill is LB204

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Grant Schulte can be reached at http://twitter.com/GrantSchulte


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