Veterinarians assess Oregon, Colorado animal rights push

Practitioners, farming groups oppose activist bid to limit hunting, breeding

September 2, 2021 (published)
Photo courtesy of the Oregon State Archives
The Oregon Secretary of State's office, housed in the capitol (pictured), is charged with verifying the signatures needed to bring Initiative Petition 13 before voters next year. Organizers must submit signatures by May 27, but if they fall short or some signatures are unverified, they may pursue signatures until July 8.

Animal rights activists are seeking a change in Oregon law that would criminalize most breeding practices, injuring or killing animals for food, hunting or fishing, and any harm that may come to animals while conducting research, teaching or tethering pets.

The exact ramifications of the initiative are difficult to determine since they do not specifically criminalize an activity itself, but rather, remove exemptions for any harm that may potentially come to an animal during that activity. However, if passed, some activities such as hunting, fishing and the slaughter of livestock would be difficult, if not impossible, to carry out in the state without subjecting one to the possibility of criminal prosecution.

The proposal is in the form of an initiative petition, through which citizens may put law changes to a statewide vote by collecting a minimum number of signatures in support. Initiatives that achieve the needed signatures are then considered by voters, and become law if they receive majority approval.

Proponents of Initiative Petition 13 are in the midst of collecting the 112,020 signatures needed to put the measure before voters on Nov. 8, 2022. Only two of 68 citizen initiative petitions filed in the state for the 2020 election year made it all the way through the signature-verification stage to the ballot, according to Oregon Secretary of State online election records. Both passed.

The initiative petition would eliminate most exemptions to existing state law governing abuse, neglect and assault of animals. One change, for example, would define the act of touching the sex organs of an animal for the purpose of "breeding domestic, livestock and equine animals" as sexual assault. However, this would not apply to "animals subject to good veterinary practices," according to the initiative.

It also would scrub exceptions that permit "any practice of good animal husbandry," slaughter, pest control and scientific research. Any harm that may come to an animal would be excusable only in self-defense and while practicing veterinary medicine.

Colorado animal rights activists filed a similar — but less far-reaching — ballot initiative, which was thrown out in court. 

Oregon and Colorado already have the third- and fourth-strictest animal welfare laws in the United States, respectively, behind Maine and Illinois, according to a ranking of all 50 states published by the advocacy group Animal Welfare Defense Fund. In 2013, Oregon became the only state to explicitly cite animal sentience in its laws.

David Michelson, a resident of Portland who filed the initiative, said the campaign is confident of clearing the threshold. "This initiative has been well-received by the many Oregonians who continue to sign the petition," he said in an email.

In brief

Industry groups representing veterinarians and farmers expressed concern about the possible ramifications of the initiative but are hopeful that it will not pass. The opponents are preparing to inform the public of the petition's potential negative consequences.

Dr. Rodney Ferry, a mixed animal practitioner in Lakeview, Oregon, said that the initiative, if approved, would shut down his small agricultural town by "essentially turning Oregon into an animal sanctuary." He said that its effects would be so far-reaching that some pet owners may be deterred from veterinary care for fear of being charged with a felony.

"It's as simple as tethering an animal on a camping trip and a wild animal attacks it — that would be a felony for recklessly endangering an animal," he said. "Little things like that prevent people from taking care of their animals because if they think they're going to be reported or go to jail you probably just won't see the animal."

The Oregon Veterinary Medical Association opposes the initiative. Executive Director Glenn Kolb voiced concern that banning rodent pest control, for example, would threaten ecological conservation and promote the spread of disease. He said the OVMA's board discussed the measure and informed its members via a newsletter but has not released an official public statement.

"We're starting to have those conversations, but we haven't made any commitments financially [to campaign against it]," he said. "But we have committed to voicing our opposition to this."

The OVMA has not asked the American Veterinary Medical Association to commit resources to the issue, Kolb said, but the national organization is monitoring it. Immediate Past President Dr. Douglas Kratt said that the AVMA is working closely with the OVMA to counter provisions in the ballot measure that "would limit veterinarians' ability to provide care for animal patients."

The AVMA Council on Education, the nation's accrediting body for veterinary programs, requires a research program for accreditation. It is unclear whether protections for research animals implied in the petition would negatively affect the accreditation of the Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Susan Tornquist, the program's dean, doubts it. "[T]here is not enough detail in the initiative to predict exactly what would happen if it passed," Tornquist said in an email. "I don't think it will pass, so I haven't worried about it too much."

Similar effort stalls in Colorado

In Colorado, Initiative Petition 16 was submitted in February and derailed in June. Calling for significant changes to animal cruelty laws, it would have subjected veterinarians to charges if they performed common surgeries, such as spaying and neutering pets. Artificially inseminating dogs, horses and livestock would have been classified as bestiality.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the petition was overly broad, violating a requirement that ballot measures stick to a single subject. Some opponents have taken pre-emptive action, issuing public statements and speaking to the media, in case the petition re-emerges in revised form.

Shawn Martini, vice president of advocacy at the Colorado Farm Bureau, cautioned that stricter animal welfare laws could raise food prices and reduce state revenue. Considering the public's demand for animal products, he predicted that bans sought by the petition would push ranchers and feedlots to close or relocate to neighboring states.

Fifth-generation rancher James Henderson of San Luis Valley, Colorado, said that criminalizing veterinary procedures would make it harder for large animal veterinarians to make a living, and would threaten animal welfare. "The harder it is to get access to veterinarians, the harder it is to have a healthy herd," he said.

The Colorado Veterinary Medical Association said it discussed what a countercampaign would look like but did not commit resources to oppose the initiative before it was tossed out. CVMA CEO Diane Matt said that the organization customarily waits until a petition makes it to the signature-gathering phase before devoting resources to a public appeal and message development.

"People wanted us to be raging and shaking our fists very early on, not waiting until our vocal opposition could really contribute to the defeat of the ballot initiative," Matt said. "... We want people to know and understand, but we don't want to waste our resources now when they're really needed in an election, if it had come to that."

Who's behind the push?

The Colorado proposal was filed by Brent Johannes and Alexander Sage, both of Broomfield, Colorado. Michelson, who filed the Oregon petition, told the VIN News Service by email that he is "personally familiar" with them, but the organizations and initiatives have no formal ties and operate independently.

Records from the Oregon Secretary of State show that the campaign collected roughly $3,400 in donations, of which $1,400 is from Michelson, who hosts a podcast about advocating veganism. He said the initiative is intended to "make Oregon a sanctuary state for all animals, not just companion animals, where their needs are legally protected."

He continued: "While we recognize that many people currently abuse, neglect, and sexually assault animals not out of malice, but in an attempt to meet their needs for food, economic security, recreation, etc., there are an abundance of alternative strategies one can use to meet these needs without infringing upon the needs of animals."

According to Michelson, animals on farms, used in research, in exhibitions and in the wild will be the "greatest beneficiaries" of the initiative. One of the biggest impacts to companion animals, he said, would be that exemptions are removed if harm is caused to pets during "handling and training techniques" that involve intentional injury of an animal or the withholding of minimum care from an animal.

Both Johannes and Michelson have volunteered for The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA supports the Oregon petition's emphasis on outlawing artificial insemination and castration. In an emailed statement, President Ingrid Newkirk said the organization is "in favor of pointing out the sexual abuse of farmed animals, including cows who are violated during artificial insemination."

Matthew Johnson, an organizer for the activist group Direct Action Everywhere, speaking broadly about organizing practices, told VIN News that citizen initiatives are attractive to activists because they allow them to circumvent the legislative process and go straight to voters. Legislators often have ties to agriculture, he said, while the public is more apt to support welfare issues, at least mildly.

"You go to a ballot initiative when you have widespread public support, but it's weak; it's a low-level issue for voters," he explained. "It's not a first resort; it's a last resort of our current political resources." 

Direct Action Everywhere is not involved with either campaign and has no official position on the initiatives, Johnson said.

Ballot petitions have a strong history in Oregon, said John Watt, president and CEO of political consulting firm JWA Public Affairs, but he doesn't see rural Oregonians getting behind this particular initiative.

"There's no way on God's green earth that this is gonna pass," he predicted. "I've read some crazy initiative petitions, but this is in the top 10."

This article has been changed to correct the spelling of San Luis Valley.

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