May 5, 2005 The Animal Cruelty bill became law about 5 p.m. Thursday. It wasn't easy.
It took five years of meetings, a few protests, volumes of professional testimony, a massive e-mail campaign, a 3,000-signature petition, the unanimous passage of two Legislatures, two gubernatorial vetoes, revised legislation from the governor Tuesday, a failed veto override of the original bill Wednesday and a unanimous veto override Thursday.
The bill has suffered almost as much abuse as the animals it seeks to protect, including once being "misplaced" at a 24th Legislature Rules Committee meeting.
It seemed to have fallen victim to every legislative ploy in the books, but that was before Thursday. The second day of the Senate full session featured more parliamentary parlor games than Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure likely ever envisioned.
The long day started off propitiously. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, in an uncharacteristic move, called in to the Radio One talk show, AMVI, to express his strong approval of the measure and his hope for the passage of a compromise bill in Thursday's session. And that is what he got.
The problem seemed to be who was going to take credit for the bill Donastorg, the governor, or the minority bloc. All the senators claimed to be in favor of the intent of the legislation, if some more than others.
Here's what happened. After the governor's last veto in March, Donastorg, a majority member, vowed he would move for an override at the next Senate session, and proceeded to lobby the minority senators to get the necessary 10 votes for the override.
On Tuesday, Turnbull proposed his own legislation, which was similar to Donastorg's bill with the parts the governor didn't like deleted or amended. (See " Governor Submits Revised Animal Cruelty Bill.")
After losing his override motion Wednesday on an 8-7 vote along majority/minority lines, Donastorg said he would re-introduce the bill and an amendment Thursday. He said Thursday he wanted to go for another override with an amendment soon to follow, bowing to several of Turnbull's revisions.
For Joe Elmore, Humane Society of St. Thomas executive director, Wednesday and Thursday were deja vu. Elmore had sat through two days of session in February, actively lobbying the senators before the bill passed unanimously late the second day.
This time around, Elmore had to court the minority senators who seemed bent on following Turnbull's revisions. The minority bloc wanted a compromise bill, and they all said they would support that. They also asked for and welcomed Elmore's input he was called in several times Thursday to examine the amendment in meticulous detail.
"I have no problem with anyone in the minority introducing this bill," Donastorg said early Thursday. Donastorg made clear more than once that he was offended by Turnbull's "billnapping," taking his bill and simply making a few changes. He said, "That bill must have come from a dream."
By the end of a very long day, the bill's passage began to seem like a "dream." Throughout the day, senators huddled, frequently provoking Senate President Lorraine Berry to use her gavel to restore order. Sen. Craig Barshinger and Donastorg erupted at almost regular intervals in verbal play over supposed infractions of civility. And the day wore on.
Finally, after a few more rounds of huddles, sometimes taking the minority senators out of the chambers and back, a compromise was reached between Donastorg and the minority caucus.
Sen. Celestino A. White explained that once an override fails, it cannot be re-introduced by the same senator. It must be re-introduced by a senator who did not vote for the override, in this case, a minority senator.
The day had a packed agenda, with leases, rezonings and several other bills in addition to the animal cruelty legislation. Finally, before the last bill on the agenda, Sen. Ronald Russell stood up and moved for the override of Donastorg's original legislation, to the sounds of an all but inaudible sigh. It was quickly seconded, and it passed unanimously. Donastorg, as previously orchestrated, introduced the amendment with Turnbull's revisions later.
– Decreases the time for imprisonment for first-degree animal cruelty from three to two years, and increased the fine from $1,000 to $2,000. He said the original imprisonment term was "too harsh."
– Changes animal neglect from a felony to a misdemeanor because it is not as serious a crime as animal abuse. He deleted imprisonment altogether, and increased the fine from "not exceeding $1,000" to "not exceeding $3,000," and included "up to 500 hours of community service."
– Rewords a section which included "anyone destroying a bird's nest or removing eggs from a nest," to read "anyone who maliciously" does so. He also changed the punishment from imprisonment not exceeding one year and a fine of $500 to "or a fine of $500."
– Changes the definition of "animal" to "not include any pest that might be exterminated." Turnbull had objected that the original bill left open the question of whether rodents would be protected in the law.
– Changes the time period of assisting an animal who is observed being confined without food or water from 12 hour to 24 hours.
– Changes from a possible lifetime ban to a possible 20-year ban for ever acting as a custodian of an animal for a person convicted of any offense as defined in the bill, at the discretion of the court.
After all was said and done, Donastorg said, "There have been lots of comments offered and exchanged here this afternoon, lots of negotiations, lots of pleading, lots of inconvenience." He paused. "I want to thank Sen. Russell in particular," he said. With a slight smile, he added, "As you can see, I am a man of my word. I could have taught you a little lesson in parliamentary procedure. I am demonstrating I still brought the amendment. I want to thank all the senators and the governor."
"We have made history today," Donastorg continued. "We are the trendsetter for the rest of the Caribbean. They can look at us for laws that should be in place to reshape society."
Barshinger objected. Donastorg frowned. Barshinger said, "My only objection is that it took so long to get to this important point. One of us ran the ball all the way down the field. All of us can take a great step forward, because of Sen. Donastorg's support of us and of the governor."
And, after all was said and done, Elmore was elated, if tired. "I'm thrilled that it finally passed," he said. "Now, we have a strong law. We can use it as a model for the rest of the Caribbean. We can be an example. Our next step is to educate the community to what the law means."
The Humane Society had another win Thursday. The Senate unanimously passed its zoning request for its coming Animal Campus on Weymouth Rhymer highway. "That was the final step in getting started on our campus," Elmore said.
Thursday evening, businessman Randolph Knight, the capital campaign director for the Animal Care Campus who has supported the animal cruelty legislation for years, said, "I have nothing to say about the political process that brought this about, except to thank the few senators who legitimately believed in the legislation from the get-go. I hope to see a new humane Legislature in 2007. "
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