Bellevue resident Julie Lawson has never been a political activist, but when she saw three horses starving on a ranch in Gannett last year, she said she knew she had to do something.
"I'd never been political in my whole life until these horses came to me," she said.
As she watched other neighbors sneak the horses hay under the cover of night, Lawson called the county animal control officer at the time, to no avail. It was then that Lawson tried to find recourse in the law.
"I started reading the [state animal cruelty] codes and everything, and I thought, maybe I have a case," Lawson said. But she said she was discouraged by the "slap on the wrist" punishments outlined for animal cruelty by the state, a crime classified as a misdemeanor.
It was then that she started working to pass an initiative that would classify the third repeat offense as a felony.
In conjunction with the Boise-based animal advocacy group Idaho 1 in 3, she drafted an initiative that would make the penalties for animal cruelty much steeper on repeat offenses.
"There's a huge difference between a felony and a misdemeanor," she said. "There's jail time."
A conviction of animal cruelty is currently punishable by a fine of at least $100 or less than six months in jail for a first offense. For a third offense, the penalty is up to three years in jail or a fine of up to $9,000.
The initiative seeks to raise the penalties to at least a $400 fine for a first offense. The third offense would be punishable by at least six months in jail and a fine of up to $9,000.
Jo-Anne Dixon, executive director of the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley, said the initiative is long overdue.
"We're one of three states in the country that does not have this type of legislation, and it's so sad," she said. "Idaho is very, very behind the times in terms of animal welfare."
In order for the initiative to become law, Lawson, organization founder Virginia Hemingway and others first must collect 60,000 signatures from registered voters by April 30, 2012. The initiative then would go on the November 2012 ballot, and must be passed by a simple majority.
So far, Lawson said she has collected 1,000 signatures of voters in the valley over the course of a month, putting her about a quarter of the way to her April goal.
"These people are animal-lovers," she said, adding that response overall has been positive.
"They hug me and thank me and tell me their story," she said. "Other people feel there are too many laws here in Idaho, but I haven't had any really hostile people."
< While Lawson may not have seen it while collecting signatures, Dixon said animal cruelty is present even in this animal-loving area.
"It's alive and present for sure," she said. "We certainly see it—or suspect it."
Dixon said the shelter staff has worked with the Blaine County Sheriff's Office on several cases the shelter had encountered, though she declined to give specifics.
Calls to Deputy Paul Ramm, Blaine County animal control officer, were not returned as of press time.
Dixon said it's hard to say exactly how large a problem animal cruelty is in the valley because law enforcement isn't focused on addressing it.
"If you're not looking for it, you're not going to find it," Dixon said.
This lack of enforcement is one reason why Dixon said she's supporting the petition, which can be signed at the shelter as well as at most veterinarian clinics in the region. Animal abuse can also be an indicator of other abuse as well, she said.
"If people are treating their animals poorly, they are likely treating other people poorly," she said. "It's a canary in the coal mine for other problems."
According to a study by the American Humane Association, 20 percent of all animal abuse cases also involve domestic violence.
Lawson said animal cruelty is a more of a problem in other areas of the state than in Blaine County. Most instances of animal cruelty in the area result from people not being able to afford to feed their animals due to the recession, she said.
Cases of "extreme" animal torture, such as a case where a dog had its throat slit in Cascade, do still exist, Lawson said. The man in question was only charged with theft of the dog, and was fined $87.
"Our feeling as animal advocates is that he should have gotten a felony charge," she said.
Dixon said the petition and its accompanying movement is especially important because animals cannot be their own advocates.
"Animals have no one to protect them," Dixon said. "They can't make choices for themselves, they don't have access to a checkbook, and they need people to be their voices and be their advocates. It's our job as humans to look out for those who have no voice."
As for the horses for which Lawson was trying to speak, Lawson said they have disappeared. She said she has no idea what happened to them.
"It's one of those stories without an end," she said.
Current Idaho code defines cruelty as the intentional and malicious harm, injury or neglect of an animal. This includes starvation, abandonment, injury, death and other similar acts (Idaho State Code, Section 25-3502). Dog-fighting and poisoning animals are already felonies. For the entire statute, visit http://www.legislature.idaho.gov/idstat/.
Where to sign:
Petitions are available valley-wide, including at the Sun Valley Animal Clinic south of Ketchum, the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley near Hailey, Sawtooth Tack & Feed in Bellevue and the Galleria shopping center on Leadville Avenue in Ketchum.
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org