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March 11. 2013 8:14PM

Another View: Limiting private animal abuse probes in NH would aid abusers

The New Hampshire House Environment and Agriculture Committee is to be commended for recently tabling a measure that would have muzzled the work of whistle-blowers and investigative journalists in exposing abuses in our food system. More than 50 civil liberties, public health, food safety, environmental, food justice, animal welfare, legal, workers' rights, journalism and First Amendment organizations and individuals opposed this measure, which was cloaked in the guise of protecting animals, but was in fact intended to protect animal abusers.

Supporters of this bill were hoping New Hampshire's lawmakers and citizens could be bamboozled into supporting House Bill 110, which would have restricted the activities of whistleblowers who go undercover and document abuse of farm animals and violations of other laws. The ability for whistleblowers to bring to the public an established and indisputable pattern of misconduct has played a vital role in animal welfare and food safety improvements in industrialized agriculture going back to the days of Upton Sinclair.

In 2009, a Humane Society of the United States investigation of a slaughter plant in Vermont led to a plant closure and felony cruelty conviction, along with the dismissal of a federal food safety inspector. Had a law such as HB 110 existed then, the full extent of the crimes being perpetrated in that plant never would have been revealed. Similarly, in 2008, an HSUS undercover investigation of a slaughter plant in California revealed horrific animal abuse and food safety violations, resulting in the largest meat recall in U.S. history, as well as criminal convictions.

If this bill was truly meant to help prosecute animal cruelty, why not include cruelty to cats, dogs and other animals? The bill even offered a reporting exemption for farm managers and owners who take some form of "corrective action" against alleged abusers, as well as farm employees who report any wrongdoing to their supervisors. So if a New Hampshire citizen witnesses abuse against farm animals, they would be required to report it within 48 hours to a law enforcement agency or face a civil penalty, but the person who has the biggest duty to report and ensure the safety of animals - the farm manager or owner - can be the judge and jury for any bad acts happening on their farm.

The challenges to investigating any case of animal cruelty can be daunting, in part because such cases are too often not the top priority for underfunded law enforcement agencies.

That's why the measure also generated strong opposition from officials who enforce New Hampshire's animal cruelty laws. According to testimony provided by Stephanie Frommer of the Monadnock Humane Society, "Codifying this proposed time limit would further tie the hands of an already overburdened law enforcement and judicial system."

Steve Sprowl, who is a humane agent with the New Hampshire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, with 25 years of experience in law enforcement, provided testimony that the bill would hinder investigations, stating that "no police agencies would want legislation to govern how they conduct investigations and put time limits on any investigations and it would be unproductive and unnecessary. I couldn't imagine having to conduct an investigation on a homicide, child endangerment, rape or robbery with a time limit on it, and investigations of animal cruelty shouldn't reither."

It is important to say that while we have no tolerance for willful mistreatment of animals, The HSUS also works closely with and supports farmers and ranchers whose agricultural practices adhere to animal welfare standards. In New Hampshire, where most farms are small and family-run, producers should have no concerns about the public seeing their operations. Transparency, not concealment, should be the standard on farms where humane and sustainable animal husbandry practices are employed as a matter of pride.

According to an American Farm Bureau poll, 95 percent of Americans want farm animals to be well cared for. A statewide survey of New Hampshire voters released in December showed overwhelming support for legislation to protect farm animals from inhumane confinement.

Granite Staters want all animals, including farm animals, treated with decency, and this bill simply didn't hit the mark. While the committee voted to retain the bill - potentially for further action next year - its passage would mean that an important means of uncovering and stopping abuse of farm animals would no longer be available. And we would be no further in our fight against animal cruelty.

Joanne Bourbeau is the Northeast regional director for The Humane Society of the United States (humanesociety.org).

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