A legislative bill to make animal cruelty a felony includes language that would reduce dog fighting from a felony to a misdemeanor crime, a North Idaho activist pointed out this week.
SB1303, which passed the Senate last week, includes an amendment that would make third violations of any provision in Idaho's animal care statute - except for animal cruelty - a misdemeanor, noted Tony Mangan, president of Panhandle Equine Rescue, Inc.
Dog fighting is included in that blanket misdemeanor penalty.
"They did not exempt it from the bill," said Mangan, a Spirit Lake resident and also co-founder of Idaho 1 Of 3. "That puts (the Legislature) in a unique position."
He worries that if dog fighting is no longer a felony, it would become more common in the region. It would also be a black eye for the state, he said, as Idaho was one of the last two states to make dog fighting a felony four years ago.
"A lot of things go on around that kind of behavior, like the killing of dogs afterward," Mangan said.
His group, 1 Of 3, has also been fighting the bill because of its lack of mandatory sentencing. Prior to the Legislature authoring SB1303, the group has been collecting signatures to put its own initiative on the ballot to make animal cruelty a felony.
Karen Williams, Kootenai County animal control officer, said she would not support a reduced penalty for dog fighting.
"Because of the horrific nature of it," she said. "That's a horrible thing to do."
In her five years in her position, Williams said the sheriff's department has never had a dog fighting case.
She wasn't sure if changing the penalty would impact how often dog fighting occurs.
"With the caliber of person doing it, I'm not sure it would make a difference," she said.
SB1303 passed the senate 31-1 last week, with two absences and a vacant seat. It was introduced the next day to the House Agriculture Affairs Committee.
Rep. Tom Trail, who helped author the bill and is a member of House Agriculture Affairs, stated that the concern about reducing the dog fighting penalty "is an excellent point," and he plans to oppose that part of the bill.
The Moscow lawmaker said it's possible to handle the issue with an amending order.
"(Dog fighting) is one bill with the governor's help that we got passed about four years ago, and I don't want it to go down the drain," Trail wrote in an email.
Most of what Trail has advocated for animal safety is in SB1303, he said, though he would like to add a definition of animal torture with stricter penalties.
"My hope is that we can get this through this session and if we have to toughen it up, do it next session," Trail stated.
But the bill might not have a strong future anyway, said Rep. Phil Hart.
The Athol legislator noted that past bills to beef up animal mistreatment penalties have not garnered wide legislative support.
He hasn't read the bill yet, he said, but would approach it with caution.
"I think we need to be very careful in what kinds of penalties we add to the Idaho code," Hart said. "Our prisons have been overflowing, and we've had to send prisoners out of state and pay extra for that."