A beer-soaked bacchanal centered on the domination of snapping turtles is now at the center of a legal challenge claiming that the state is failing to enforce its laws against animal cruelty.
Campshore Campground has been hosting Snapperfest along the Ohio River in southeastern Indiana for the past 15 years amid growing concern over animal rights issues.
On January 19, two national non-profits, Animal Legal Defense Fund and Best Friends Animal Society, jointly filed a petition for rulemaking with the Indiana Natural Resources Commission, arguing that the Indiana Department of Natural Resources misinterpreted state law regarding animal cruelty.
According to Indiana Code 35-46-3-12, "A person who knowingly or intentionally beats a vertebrate animal commits cruelty to an animal, a Class A misdemeanor."
The DNR has said the law doesn't apply in cases where snappers are abused because they, like smooth softshell and spiny softshell turtles, are designated as game species in Indiana and the law provides an exemption for wild animals that are legally taken and possessed.
"We are asking the INRC to clarify that after animals are taken, they are protected under Indiana law," said Carter Dillard, ALDF's director of litigation.
"DNR took the position that no law applies; however, once you trap an animal, you can't just do anything you want to it. Their misinterpretation would literally allow someone to torture a turtle, a deer, a coyote or any animal to death, so long as that animal had been trapped first. It is time for this legal misinterpretation to be corrected and for the state to put an end to this pathetic event once and for all."
Its interpretation of the exemption results in failure to enforce Indiana's animal cruelty standard, Dillard said.
In response, Cameron Clark, chief legal counsel for the Indiana DNR, calls ALDF's description an "unfair characterization," stating that DNR doesn't "permit or promote [Snapperfest]."
Due to extensive protests from animal rights groups, DNR had a presence at last August's Snapperfest. As part of an undercover operation, conservation officers were empowered to intervene if they witnessed cruelty.
"To our knowledge and from onsite observation, abuse of the snapping turtles is not allowed," said Shelley Reeves, the governor's liaison for the DNR.
Footage provided by the World Animal Awareness Society captured examples of cruelty in violation of state law, such as turtles held by their tails, repeatedly dropped and/or thrown to the ground and held up by their heads.
"If they didn't see it, they are ignoring it – or maybe they don't understand," Dillard said.
"They have a responsibility to protect wildlife. Between Snapperfest, coyote penning and canned hunting, the leadership looks like it's putting up Indiana's wildlife in a fire sale."
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