A proposal designed to protect farm animals in Maine from cruel treatment appears likely to fail after opposition from the dairy industry and a chilly reception from lawmakers.
Christina Perkins, an Ellsworth attorney and animal welfare advocate, made the proposal in an attempt to shield animals in agricultural operations from harm. She wants to remove a clause from state law that allows farmers to use adherence to best management practices as a defense against charges of animal cruelty.
The law should be changed because animals should be treated the same way whether they are kept on a farm, in a shelter or in someone’s backyard, Perkins said. But the Legislature’s agriculture committee voted against the proposal by a measure of 11-1 on Feb. 28, and efforts to save it are uncertain.
Dairy farmers in the state argued that best management practices exist to protect the welfare of animals, and not to shield farmers from allegations of abuse.
“Cows are business partners. A farmer has an emotional as well as a business interest in making sure those animals are well cared for,” said Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association.
Rep. Ralph Chapman, a Democrat, the sole committee member who didn’t reject the proposal, said he’s working on an amendment that could give it new life. He said his amendment might take the bill in a new direction, such as by proposing to develop new best management practices and engaging the public in their creation.
Perkins said she’s disappointed her bill wasn’t well received.
“I just find it unfair that agricultural operations get a leg up and say, ‘We might be cruel, but we do it on a large scale, so it’s OK,”‘ she said.
The Maine Veterinary Medical Association also opposed the law change. The group issued testimony at a February public hearing that current law allows the state Department of Agriculture to improve management practices and pass them on to farmers.
The veterinary association warned that the “sweeping changes” of the proposal could have unintended consequences. One complication could be that farmers would be more hesitant to call a veterinarian for medical help if they are concerned about a possible animal welfare report, the group said.
Treatment of animals in agriculture was recently the subject of a high-profile complaint to state authorities in Maine that animal advocates eventually lost. The Humane Society of the United States in June released undercover video of alleged cruelty at Hillandale Farms, in Turner, including hens sharing cages with dead birds and problems with rodents.
A state report issued in January said investigators did not find proof that best management practices were violated. Perkins said she was not motivated to request the law change by the Hillandale investigation.