CO, OR ballot initiatives could criminalize animal husbandry practices
Two ballot initiatives currently moving through the legislation process in Colorado and Oregon would pose major threats to the livestock industry in those states and across the nation.
The Colorado Treatment of Animals Initiative is scheduled to appear on the ballot in the 2022 elections if it gains enough signatures. The initiative is statutory, rather than constitutional, meaning only a popular amount of signatures from anywhere in the state is required, rather than needing signatures from all 64 counties. More than 124,000 signatures are required, and signatures are due Oct. 18 this year.
The initiative would redefine the legal definition of livestock to include fish and also redefine the meaning of a sexual act with a livestock animal to include manipulating the genitals and vaginal and rectal cavities, which is necessary for many industry standard procedures, such as artificial insemination, fertility testing and castration.
The initiative would also make it illegal to slaughter a livestock animal before it's lived at least one quarter of its legally-defined lifespan, also included in the proposal – for cows, a legally-defined lifespan of 20 years means they would not be slaughtered until they were at least 5 years old. Other lifespan definitions include 15 years for pigs and sheep. There is no lifespan included for fish.
Many agriculture organizations in Colorado and elsewhere are heavily opposed to the ballot initiative, including the Colorado Livestock Association and the Animal Agriculture Alliance. Bill Hammerich, CEO of CLA, said this is the "most onerous" move any animal rights activist or activism group has made towards the livestock industry in recent memory.
"As they gather signatures for this initiative, they don't have to go anywhere in the state but probably in the five- or six-county Denver metro area," Hammerich said. "From my standpoint with this organization, it's the most onerous initiative that has ever, ever come to light. And it truly, when it comes to livestock agriculture, is going for the jugular."
Hammerich said he hopes the Colorado Supreme Court, which is handling a case filed by multiple groups with grievances over the ballot initiative, will have a decision later this month or in July. The livestock industry is worth $40 billion in Colorado, where many are employed by processors, farmers, ranchers and others.
Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president of strategic engagement for AAA, said the initiative represents a new level of opposition from animal rights activists. She said she believes that this kind of legal action is not to improve animal welfare, but to erase the livestock industry, as well as animal byproducts industries, entirely.
These groups and individuals also use the ballot initiative approach as a method to skirt by more regulated legislation processes, like actually sponsoring a bill and bringing it to the floor of a state legislature. Fourteen states in the country allow ballot initiatives to be used as a way to pass new laws, though some of those states require further review from a legislative body.
"It is very difficult to reach the end consumer. They can be driven by emotion. They care a lot about animals – they maybe see cows already as pets, and they want to do anything they can to help them, so they might be more likely to vote yes on this type of initiative," Thompson-Weeman said. "What actually appears on the ballot is an extremely simplified version that will be hard-pressed to vote against unless you really understand what's at play."
The Oregon initiative, which proposes amendments to the existing Animal Abuse, Neglect and Assault Law, is also scheduled to be on the ballot for 2022 if it gets enough signatures. The initiative needs to get just over 112,000 signatures by July 8 this year to move forward.
This initiative would make any intentional physical harm to livestock animal abuse, except in the case of self-defense due to an immediate threat of violence, or except in the case of "good animal husbandry," which is left undefined. Animal abuse in Oregon is a Class A misdemeanor, upgraded to a Class C felony if the person has been previously convicted of assault or aggravated animal abuse.
Artificial insemination and other breeding procedures would also be made illegal under the Oregon initiative, like the Colorado initiative, except those constituting the "practice of veterinary medicine," meaning if the procedure is necessary for the animal's health, like delivering a calf. Fred Gingrich, executive director of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, said these inclusions are an offense to victims of nonconsensual sex acts.
"I find it offensive that you would call artificial insemination or pregnancy-checking cattle a sex act. I think we also have to turn it around and say that's offensive to a person that's been a victim of a sex act," Gingrich said. "That damages someone for life, so comparing the two, I find very, very offensive."
Gingrich said modern reproductive technology and handling methods are helpful, not harmful, to improving animal welfare. He said it's necessary to know when a cow is going to deliver a calf because you need to be able to dry it up, feed it differently and monitor its pregnancy along the way with ultrasounds. He also said these advancements in reproductive tech have reduced the number of calves born with horns.
Chris Wolf, agriculture economist at Cornell University, said he and his colleagues have been studying these legal actions for the past 15 years as they've gained more popularity with animal rights groups. He remarked that voting consumers have become increasingly interested in modern food production methods, especially those having to do with livestock.
"Most people will claim to care a great deal about production practices, but then if they're faced with a bill to pay for those practices many do not follow through," Wolf said. "To avoid regulation, ag industries – all industries, but in particular agriculture in this country – you have to maintain what we would call a social license, which is the acceptance of the businesses and industry's practices (by) the public and relevant stakeholders."
The majority of consumers care most about food price, quality and safety, Wolf said, though there is a minority that is very vocal about animal welfare in the process of food production. He also said he's found that those same consumers who vote for these initiatives don't consider the economic implications of their passing, like the increase in food costs and collapse of some industries that rely on livestock agriculture.
Thompson-Weeman, Hammerich, Gingrich and Wolf appeared on a June 2 episode of Hoard's Dairyman Dairy Livestream to discuss the issue.