Virginia Hemingway is tired of dealing with Idaho politicians. In 2009, her organization Stop Torturing Our Pets helped write a bill pushing for stricter cruelty laws, but the measure died in an Idaho House committee. In 2010 as STOP's president, she worked on a revised bill that passed overwhelmingly (34-1) in the Idaho Senate but was killed again in the House. This year, the group has decided to put the issue to voters by securing enough signatures to place an animal cruelty initiative on the November 2012 ballot. Additionally, STOP has folded into another organization, Idaho 1 of 3. Hemingway said her new group touts the fact that Idaho is one of only three states that don't consider the repeated torture of animals a felony.
Have you ever witnessed animals being tortured?
Well, I grew up on a farm near Jerome.
Are you saying that cruelty is part of the traditional life for a farm animal?
I'm adamant that we should protect normal labor practices in the agricultural community. I understand shearing and de-horning and castrations, all of those processes.
But is it fair to say that thousands of animals in Idaho are in pain today?
Oh my God, yes. Absolutely.
Can you speak to the January incident in New Plymouth, where more than 80 allegedly malnourished and mistreated animals were seized from a farm? [Three individuals were charged with 13 counts of animal cruelty and nine counts of permitting animals to go without care.]
That was torture. My personal opinion is the renters on that land were sadistic. Those are the people we're after, repeat offenders.
Wouldn't a psychiatrist say that sometimes, this type of behavior is psychopathology?
There was a case over in Pocatello where a woman was charged with 15 misdemeanors over 25 years involving hundreds of horses.
How was she allowed to continue to keep animals?
Law enforcement would tell her not to, but she would go out and get more.
So these are the examples at the heart of your argument?
Animal cruelty is a misdemeanor, and if you have a prosecutor in a small office with small staff and little money, they're not going to prosecute animal cruelty compared to, let's say, a meth case. What we want to do is on the third conviction of a misdemeanor, that would become a felony.
How many signatures do you need?
[We need] 47,432. That's 6 percent of the Idaho vote in 2010. We're shooting for 60,000 to make sure we have a cushion.
What is your deadline?
Next April 30 to get on the November 2012 ballot.
That doesn't make your task any less daunting.
We have groups in every corner of the state working on this. The best news of all is that the Idaho Humane Society came on board to support our effort. They have over 10,000 members.
As part of your initiative, you're looking to increase fines.
A misdemeanor would increase from $100 up to $400 for the first offense, and the second offense would increase to $600. A third animal cruelty conviction in a 15-year period would be a felony punishable by six months to three years in prison and a fine up to $9,000.
In an agriculture-driven state, you must be prepared for pushback.
But this gives a sheriff or prosecutor a lot more leverage. Imagine them talking to a violator who has been charged with two misdemeanors. They can say, "If we have to come out here again, this could be a felony and you could go to prison." We're not talking about people who have a dog tied up in the back yard who have forgotten to fill the water bowl. We're after repeat offenders who torture animals.
Is there a political divide on this issue?
This shouldn't be a partisan issue, but for some reason in Idaho, it is. That has nothing to do with liberalism. This is about Idaho people protecting Idaho animals, period.
Why did you feel you had to change your organization's name?
Idaho 1 of 3. Idaho is one of only three states without a felony for animal torture. The other two are North Dakota and South Dakota. It's embarrassing. It's shameful.