03/20/2012 10:40 EDT | Updated 05/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Vote toughening oversight of dog breeders: farrmers, animal rights groups at odds

MONROE CITY, Mo. - A 2010 ballot initiative to toughen oversight of dog breeders highlighted the rift between Missouri farmers and national animal rights activists. Two years later, the divide has only deepened.

Twenty-five farm groups ranging from the Missouri Pork Association and the state Beef Industry Council to agribusiness heavyweights Cargill and Monsanto have united under the banner of Missouri Farmers Care.

Their target? The Humane Society of the United States, which pushed the dog breeding initiative and is now the primary financial backer of Your Vote Counts!, a proposed state constitutional amendment requiring a three-fourths majority vote before the Legislature could override voter-approved laws.

That's just what lawmakers did last year, reversing many of the new rules for dog breeders endorsed by a slight majority of Missouri residents just months earlier.

Farmers' anger was on full display at a recent Missouri Farmers Care meeting in Monroe City, about 30 kilometres from the banks of the Mississippi River and half that distance from Mark Twain's birthplace in Florida, Mo.

Vehicles sported bumper stickers warning HSUS and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to "get your paws off our laws." Missouri Farmers Care flyers set on a table said, "Their goal is to end animal agriculture by increasing the cost of food and even through outright bans."

Activists view animals as "cuddly, furry things, not what we use to make money in livestock operations," said state Sen. Brian Munzlinger, a Republican whose district includes 13 northern Missouri counties dominated by hog farms and grain elevators.

"They weren't going to stop at pets," he added. "They're going after all of our farm animals."

Rural lawmakers such as Munzlinger have headlined a recent series of Missouri Farmers Care town hall meetings across the state. From Clinton and Harrisonville to Salem and St. Joseph, hundreds of farmers turn out twice a month for political rallies that bring together soybean growers, dairy producers and other agricultural groups that more often have focused on their own narrow interests, said Dan Kleinsorge, the farm group's operations manager

"Prop B was a wake-up call for agriculture," he said.

Farm groups in other states also are heeding the call, Kleinsorge noted, as HSUS and other animal rights groups target not just Missouri but two dozen states that allow signature-driven petitions to appear on ballots.

In neighbouring Nebraska, Gov. Dave Heineman caused a stir this month when he referred to HSUS in saying, "We're going to kick your ass and send you out of the state." Farm groups there have formed a "We Support Agriculture" coalition as a pre-emptive move against potential HSUS-supported ballot efforts.

In Ohio, the state Farm Bureau formed a Center for Food and Animal Issues as part of its successful push for a 2009 ballot measure that created a livestock care oversight board. And in Iowa, farm groups stung by the release of videos of chicks being ground up and pigs being beaten convinced lawmakers to make it a crime to lie on a job application to get access to farms to make secret recordings.

While the Your Vote Counts! effort makes no mention of agriculture or "cuddly, furry" pets, Missouri campaign finance reports show two-thirds of the more than $345,000 donated to the petition drive through the end of 2011 came from HSUS. Another $50,000 was donated by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Just two of the 11 individual donors to Your Vote Counts! in the fourth quarter of 2011 live in Missouri.

Missouri Farmers Care has raised significantly less — about $127,000 through 2011 — but nearly all its 290 individual donors in the last three months of 2011 were Missourians. Most gave in relatively small amounts.

Dane Waters, the Your Vote Counts! campaign manager, acknowledged HSUS is the primary force behind the proposed Missouri ballot measure. His group must still collect signatures from two-thirds of the state's congressional districts equaling at least eight per cent of the votes cast in the 2008 gubernatorial election. That amounts to between about 146,000 and 178,000 signatures — though the group is aiming for 234,000 names.

"With any initiative effort, there's always a primary supporter or a primary donor," said Waters, who worked on Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and is also political director for the Humane Society Legislative Fund, an HSUS spinoff group that works to change state and federal animal protection laws.

"At the end of the day, it's irrelevant where the money comes from," he added. "Because only Missourians get to vote on it."

Waters agreed that the dog breeding initiative led to the latest fight, but he disputed the idea that his group was anti-agriculture. He said it has no plans, nor interest, in other agriculture-related political campaigns in Missouri beyond this year.

"There's a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about what HSUS is," he said. "Our goal is to not to fundamentally change the agricultural society in Missouri. Our goal is to work within the agricultural framework."

Farmers and their supporters remain suspicious. Steve Yates, a 59-year-old retired high school agriculture teacher who attended the Monroe City meeting, summed up the unease shared by many there.

"It threatens our livelihood, but it's a bigger issue," he said. "Whether you're a commodity producer or not, it affects the way we live. If you think the price of food is high now, just wait."



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