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Rodeo and other animal enterprises protection bill defeated

2021 Star Valley Search and Rescue Ranch Rodeo (SVI Photo by Dan Dockstader)

By CJ Baker
Powell Tribune
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

POWELL — Concerns about stepping on the toes of local governments and questions about what the bill would do doomed a Cody lawmaker’s attempt to protect rodeos and other animal events and enterprises from activists.

House Bill 95, the Working Animal Protection Act, unanimously passed committee but narrowly failed Wednesday on its third and final reading in the House.

The act would have barred cities, towns and counties from implementing any ordinance or policy that “terminates, bans or unduly restricts a person from using a working animal in lawful commerce or an animal enterprise.”

Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) described the bill as a preemptive measure to protect rodeos, horse sales, youth animal shows and fairs.

“Animal rights activists target municipalities to enact new municipal codes to prohibit these events,” Williams said.

While she was not aware of any instances in Wyoming, the sponsor said, “It’s happening all around our country. So essentially what this bill does is it protects agritourism in the state of Wyoming, which we value so much.”

The bill would have left all existing policies and ordinances in place, and said municipalities and counties could continue to implement restrictions related to “public health or public safety.”

Amendments added in committee and on the House floor also allowed local governments to implement restrictions to “reasonably protect the health and safety of working animals” or to target “puppy mills and animal hoarders.”

Those exceptions were intended to address concerns that HB 95 could inadvertently handcuff governments from taking action against dangerous or unwanted operations — such as a Laramie man who once kept dozens of pit vipers in his apartment as part of an anti-venom business.

However, given the various carve-outs, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) suggested local governments could potentially enact whatever policies they wanted by asserting they were protecting health and safety.

Zwonitzer said that made the bill “just a policy statement.”

“I understand the philosophy and I agree with it: We all love rodeo. We all love our Western way of life,” he said. “The argument is, does this bill help anything? Or does it have impacts and influences we’re not totally aware of … that could cause bad consequences?”

Proponents, however, said the legislation would offer additional and potentially necessary protections.

“What I see happening is we get a lot of out-of-state individuals that come in and don’t share the values and concern for our Western heritage and our way of life and those things don’t matter to them,” said Rep. Sarah Penn (R-Lander).

Rep. Ben Hornok (R-Cheyenne) said that, in theory, the City of Cheyenne could shut down Cheyenne Frontier Days, known as “The Daddy of ‘Em All.”

However, there’s been no suggestion or effort to do so, which prompted a retort from Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne).

“This boogeyman concept that somehow the capital city would do anything remotely close to hampering the Daddy of ‘Em All is just silly. It’s a huge economic driver, not just for the capital city and for the county but for the state of Wyoming. And it’s a tradition that’s been 150-plus years,” Olsen said. “I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”

(With the debate getting “testy,” House Speaker Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) jumped in to caution the body about calling an argument “silly.”)

For her part, Rep. Williams reiterated the proactive nature of HB 95.

“Looking back, when we went through Covid, people were saying, ‘Oh, that would never happen in Wyoming. Never,’” she said. “This bill stands in front of something that’s coming down the pipe and is already happening across our nation.”

Much of Wednesday’s debate surrounded local control, and whether decisions related to working animals should continue to be left with local governments.

“This is taking the freedoms away from local governments to choose how they want to administer and watch over the animals in their jurisdiction,” said Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander), adding, “I think local control is best, and this interferes with that.”

But Rep. Tamara Trujillo (R-Cheyenne) said the argument for local control can feel like a “cop-out.”

“Sometimes it just makes sense to handle it from the top,” Trujillo said. “As a parent, I don’t give local control to my children on how my house is [run]. I don’t believe we should give it a free-for-all in the state of Wyoming. That’s why we are here [in the Legislature].”

Rep. John Eklund (R-Cheyenne) added that the state interferes with local control “all the time.”

“This bill was brought and designed to strengthen the position of cities and counties,” Eklund said, “because they can take a beating from national organizations and can be swayed in ways that probably aren’t good for the state of Wyoming.”

Responding to the idea that local governments can’t always be trusted to resist undue influence, Rep. Zwonitzer submitted, “Some of our elected officials may say the same about this body.”

“There’s undue influence on everyone at all levels of government,” he said.

The bill then failed, with 30 ayes against 32 nays.

Among Park County’s delegation, Reps. Williams, Dalton Banks (R-Cowley) and John Winter (R-Thermopolis) voted yes, with Reps. David Northrup (R-Powell) and Sandy Newsome (R-Cody) voting no.

The Working Animal Protection Act was authored by The Cavalry Group, a Guthrie, Oklahoma-based organization that advocates for the rights of animal owners and animal-related businesses.

Had HB 95 passed and been signed into law, Wyoming would have become the third state to put a version of the act on its books, joining Oklahoma and Arkansas.

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