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Statehouse Negotiations Over Animal Cruelty Bill Fall Apart

Todd Bookman/NHPR

A controversial animal cruelty bill appears dead after lawmakers in the New Hampshire House and Senate failed to reach a compromise.

The two chambers passed substantively different versions earlier this year despite hearing relatively similar testimony from animal welfare groups, law enforcement and so-called hobby breeders.

A small group of lawmakers met several times this week to try to iron out the differences, but those negotiations ended on Wednesday during a tense meeting at the Statehouse.

One of the key sticking points was how best to define and inspect commercial dog breeders. The effort to re-write the rules surrounding breeders came in the wake of several high profile animal cruelty cases, including an incident in Wolfeboro involving 84 Great Danes.

Both sides did agree that a commercial kennel would qualify if the operator kept more than 7 “breeding female” dogs, but the House and Senate failed to reach an accord on how to define the term.

Another point of contention was that under the Senate-backed plan, the N.H. Department of Agriculture would receive an additional $200,000 to hire two inspectors to oversee commercial breeding operations.

House lawmakers criticized a lack of detail about how those inspections would play out, and if that was the correct amount of resources.

“We need to have a more carefully designed program in the Department of Agriculture, and that’s something that we could not do in a conference committee,” said Representative Peter Bixby, who represents Dover. He wanted to create a study committee to look into the inspection process.

Senator Jeb Bradley argued he thought it was better to get an inspection program up and running, and not wait for a future legislative body to enact the program. Bradley, who represents Wolfeboro, opposed a section of the House bill which would have exempted a range of dog breeders from more oversight, even if they met the seven breeding female dog threshold.

He was also critical of the House’s position that dog breeders who are the target of anonymous complaints should have access to those reports. He said it would undermine well-intentioned whistleblowers and put more animals at risk.

“I think at the end of the day, we’re protecting irresponsible dog breeders at the expense of animals. I find that unacceptable,” said Bradley.

A large coalition of hobby breeders championed the House-passed version of the bill, which they believed better protected owners who breed and raise dogs for mushing, as well as other competitions and activities. The House version also stripped out a Senate-backed plan to put more financial responsibility on dog owners accused of animal cruelty while the animals are held as evidence in criminal trials.

The “cost of care” provision as well as other sections included in the Senate plan were backed by the Humane Society of the United States, which lamented the breakdown in talks.

“The policy conversation from the House’s perspective has always been about fear of what could happen, instead of addressing what is actually happening, which is the suffering and death of dozens of dogs at unlicensed kennels in New Hampshire,” said Lindsay Hamrick, state director of HSUS.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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