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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- State Rep. Kerry Gibson hates the idea of a small dog being baked in an oven, but he doesn't think it should be a felony.
"The problem is this isn't about healthy animals. In the long run, it's about giving animals human-type rights," said Gibson, a Republican dairy farmer from Ogden.
Utah is one of seven states where torturing an animal is not a felony. A bill to make it a third-degree felony was amended before it died in the final minutes of the Legislature's annual session this year.
Gov. Jon Huntsman has said he wants to put animal abuse on the agenda for a special legislative session later this month, but critics say the purpose of returning to the Capitol is to consider essential issues. "People don't like to see controversial laws in a special session. For the most part, special sessions work best if there's consensus or it's a quick correction," said Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem.
But Huntsman's spokesman, Mike Mower, said the bill has the public's support. He said the only reason it didn't become law was because the Legislature ran out of time.
The governor, however, won't use his political muscle to get it passed, his spokesman said. "Simply to say it ran out of time is a cop-out," Gibson countered. "The reason it was there at the end and out of time was because there were concerns all along."
The animal-torture bill is controversial because lawmakers believe there's an ulterior motive. While the bill wouldn't apply to animals used in agriculture, Gibson believes animal-rights activists will seek to remove that exception at some point. "I see their end goal as trying to do away with animal agriculture, which is an important part of our economy and our state," he said.
Humane Society of Utah Executive Director Gene Baierschmidt disagrees. "That's totally absurd," he said. "It hasn't happened in the other states that this has been passed. We don't have any plans after this has been passed to go back and do anything with the Legislature."
Under the bill, torture is defined as intentionally or knowingly inflicting extreme physical pain or serious bodily injury with extreme cruelty or depravity.
A third-degree felony is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Under current Utah law, a year in jail is the maximum penalty for animal cruelty if charged as a Class A misdemeanor. It can also be charged as a lower Class B or C misdemeanor. Jail time is rare.
The bill is called "Henry's Law" after a small mixed-breed dog was placed in a 200-degree oven for five minutes. Henry, who suffered burns, also lost his eye after being attacked with a leaf blower.
Henry's abuser was charged with a Class A misdemeanor and served a little more than four months in jail.
If animal torture is put on the agenda for a special session, Valentine predicts there would be attempts to make it a felony only as a second offense. Baierschmidt said that would make the bill worthless. "If a woman is raped, they don't say you get the first one for free and we'll charge you on a second one," he said. "We're kind of sticking to our guns on this in that we'd rather not even see it heard in the special session if it's not on the first offense."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)