Florida Supreme Court hears arguments for amendment wording

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Tuesday, November 6, 2001, updated at 7:09AM

Pregnant pigs may land on ballot.
Supreme Court hears petition on penning

By Bill Cotterell, DEMOCRAT SENIOR WRITER.

Pregnant pigs got their day in court Monday as animal rights activists sought to save their bacon with a constitutional amendment.

During a half-hour hearing on a petition campaign, Florida Supreme Court justices rooted around in technical details about the definition of a farm, ballot format and possible penalties for penning up pregnant porkers. But they raised no serious objections, and Attorney General Bob Butterworth didn't try to block the proposal from next year's ballot.

"We don't think cruelty to animals is a frivolous concern for the Constitution," Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, said on the court steps as he and other advocates of the proposal left the hearing. "This is a popular expression of the people's will."

But farmer Steve Basford, who has about 300 sows on his farm near Grand Ridge, said it isn't beastly to keep them in pens too narrow for them to turn around. Basford said farm experts and state regulators have approved the "gestation crate" method for safety and cleanliness.

"For a pig to produce the most for me, I've got take care of her," said Basford, contacted at his farm. "We take good care of all our animals."

Pompano Beach coalition
Floridians for Humane Farms, a coalition of animal-rights groups based in Pompano Beach, has certified more than 118,000 voter signatures on its petition for a constitutional amendment. If the Supreme Court approves the ballot language, the group has until Aug. 6 to gather 488,722 valid signatures on its proposal - which would then go on the 2002 election ballot for a statewide vote.
If approved, the amendment would make it a misdemeanor to confine or tie up a pregnant pig in a manner that prevents her from turning around. It is aimed at huge farming operations that sell to nationwide food distributors.

Former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Grimes told the court the amendment complies with the twin criteria for getting on the ballot. He said it deals with a single subject and that the ballot summary voters will see at the polls is sufficient to let them know what they're voting on.

Justice Leander Shaw asked, "If I'm raising a pig at home to sell, would that be covered? If it's kept in my yard but being raised to be slaughtered?" Grimes replied that the definition of a "farm" means a place with land, buildings and equipment "used in the production of animals for food or fiber."

Justice Peggy Quince asked whether pens could be used when a piggy goes to market. Grimes said the restriction applies only on the farm, not in transit or veterinary procedures.

Gene Bauston, director of Farm Sanctuary of Watkins Glen, N.Y., said huge pig-farming operations have a harmful environmental impact on water and air quality. He said pigs bound for the sausage works are usually kept only a few months, but that breeding sows can spend three years in narrow pens - artificially inseminated until their bodies collapse from overfeeding and lack of exercise.

Campaign records in the Secretary of State's office show that Farm Sanctuary has put up more than $160,000 of the $428,000 raised by Floridians for Humane Farms in the past year. The New York-based Fund for Animals has contributed $80,000, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund of Petaluma, Calif., paid $15,610 in legal fees for the petition drive.

Compassion in World Farming, a British organization, donated $8,000 to the Florida campaign.

'Not just a Florida issue'
"This is not just a Florida issue," Basford said. "They're using us as a stepping-stone state for a national campaign."
Basford said farmers view the current petition drive much the same as fishing interests saw the 1994 net-ban amendment - an attempt by well-meaning city dwellers to fix what they think is a problem by voting for a constitutional edict that can wipe out an industry.

"We, as citizens, depend on the Florida Department of Agriculture to determine whether our gas pumps are correct and our food is safe," he said. "Do we want these organizations to decide for us what acceptable practices of animal husbandry will be?"

Contact reporter Bill Cotterell at bcotterell@taldem.com or (850) 599-2243.
 
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