Legislation in Kentucky that was designed to set euthanasia standards for shelter animals took an unexpected turn when it went to the state Senate, where critics claim lawmakers “snuck” in a new, controversial provision that could actually hamper animal abuse investigations.
Kentucky State Representative Joni Jenkins originally sponsored House Bill 222 in January to eliminate the use of gas as a means of euthanasia on animals in shelters.
“Kentucky gets such a terrible rating about the way we deal with our animals,” Jenkins told ABC News Wednesday. “House Bill 222 was an attempt to raise this up a little bit.”
But after the bill left Kentucky’s House of Representatives for the state Senate, the Senate Agriculture Committee added language that Jenkins said made the bill “much more complicated, and maybe even unconstitutional.”
The Senate committee had added a provision that would make it illegal to interfere with agricultural operations by “obtain[ing] access to an agricultural operation through misrepresentation,” or filming hidden camera footage of farm operations – making the bill the latest of the controversial so-called “ag-gag” legislation, according to critics. Such provisions have pitted animal activists and lobbyists for the agriculture industry against each other in state legislative battles across the nation.
“The purpose of the ag-gag bill is to prevent transparency,” Paul Shapiro, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, told ABC News on Tuesday. “The way they try to get the bill through is that they sneak it through the middle of the night so they can go without any public debate.”
Many animal activist organizations have relied on hidden camera footage in the past to expose animal cruelty.
The animal rights group Mercy for Animals recorded abuse of cows at Bettencourt Dairies in Idaho in 2012 that aired last year on ABC News’ “Nightline.” Three workers had criminal charges filed against them, with one pleading guilty to misdemeanor animal cruelty. Four workers at Wiese Brothers Farm in Wisconsin, a former supplier for DiGiorno’s Pizza, were charged for criminal animal cruelty after the release of another undercover video, also shot by Mercy for Animals. The men are scheduled to face trial later this year.
The Wiese Brothers Farm said in an e-mail that the company was unaware of the abuse and was “shocked and saddened to see a few of our employees not following our farm’s policies for proper animal care.” Top Bettencourt officials made similar statements in interviews with ABC News at the time of the first report.
Unlike ag-gag legislation passed in Iowa, Utah, and Idaho, where the bills were debated and passed on their own, in Kentucky the anti-hidden camera provision was attached to an existing, popular bill with seemingly unrelated content beyond a link to animals.
Shapiro said he believes the provisions were added in retaliation for undercover investigations that the Humane Society had conducted in Kentucky a few weeks prior. Representatives for Sen. Paul Hornback, the chair for the Kentucky Senate Agriculture Committee, did not return requests for comment for this report.
“Weeks after the HSUS released a shocking cruelty expose in Kentucky, the meat industry is trying to blow the whistle on the whistle-blower,” Shapiro said.
Kentucky is the sixth state in 2014 to consider some form of regulation to prevent activists from going undercover inside farm facilities, alongside Arizona, New Hampshire, Indiana, Tennessee and Idaho. Idaho passed its bill in February, criminalizing unauthorized recording inside agricultural facilities.
“This is not the first time we have seen corporate agricultural interests try to slip an ag-gag provision into a bill at the eleventh hour, but it is especially disappointing that it was added to legislation designed to improve the welfare of animals in Kentucky,” said Daisy Freund, senior manager of Farm Animal Welfare for the ASPCA.
The Kentucky Farm Bureau supported the added provision, and said the “well-being of animals is and always will be of the utmost importance to Kentucky’s farmers.”
“The proper care of livestock and poultry goes hand-in-hand with a farmer’s livelihood, and none of our members condone animal cruelty of any form,” Kentucky Farm Bureau spokesperson Dan Smaldone said. “House Bill 222, and Kentucky Farm Bureau’s support of it, is aimed at preventing individuals from seeking employment on a farm through misrepresentation, and does not prevent law enforcement or governmental authorities from investigating accusations of animal cruelty. Kentucky has established Livestock Care Standards that provide guidelines for proper care of the Commonwealth’s farm animals, and we only support and encourage all farmers in this state to adhere to those standards at all times.”
The Kentucky bill is currently awaiting its third reading on the Senate floor, and faces several legislative hurdles before it can be approved in both houses.
Rep. Jenkins said she’d rather not see the bill be passed at all, the way it’s currently written.
“It was noncontroversial. I don’t think many people were ever against it. To take a simple bill and make it something much more complicated, and maybe even unconstitutional, is certainly disturbing,” she said. “I would hope it just dies.”