No one in his right mind would purposely throw Rover out of the back of a moving pickup truck. Nor would he intentionally starve Fluffy to death.

But inadvertent or not, two Democratic lawmakers say such cruelty - any cruelty - to animals ought to be considered a criminal offense, and they have filed separate pieces of legislation doing just that.And that has rural lawmakers barking mad.

"Does that mean you can't use spurs on a horse anymore?" questioned Rep. Glen Brown, R-Coalville. "And how does a farmer dispose of an incapacitated animal? If a cow freezes to death is the farmer criminally liable? Who is going to pay for the autopsy to see if the animal was given proper food and shelter?"

"It is obviously an attempt by animal rights people and pet lovers who have no idea whatsoever of the realities faced by the livestock industry in this state," added Rep. Bill Wright, R-Elberta.

Urban-rural conflict

In a classic urban-rural duel, Brown and Wright, both dairy farmers, and others from rural Utah are locking horns with Wasatch Front lawmakers who say law enforcement officers need a stronger tool to prosecute cruelty to domesticated animals.

House Minority Leader Frank Pignanelli, D-Salt Lake, has filed HB189, which makes it a class B misdemeanor to be cruel to an animal even if such cruelty was not intended by the owner.

Rep. David Jones, D-Salt Lake, has filed HB190, which makes it a class C misdemeanor to transport any animal in the back of a vehicle unless the animal is properly caged.

Both bills have strong support from animal advocacy groups, which have logged literally thousands of phone calls to Utah lawmakers in support of the bills. So many calls have been made that Rep. Afton Bradshaw, R-Salt Lake, quipped she wished they would "call off the dogs."

But both bills would present unique problems to Utah's livestock industry and to Utah's rural way of life. Scarcely a pickup takes to the highway in rural Utah without a farm dog, horse or other animal of some kind riding in back. And the sheer nature of farming exposes animals to weather extremes that frequently prove fatal.

"Someone who lives in town would seldom have any comprehension of what constitutes abuse of farm animals," Wright said.

"Sad-eyed" puppy dogs

Pignanelli insists the bills are not directed at the livestock industry or rural Utahns. Rather they are directed at urban owners of cats and dogs and other such animals who seriously neglect the animals, but use the excuse "we didn't know we were doing anything wrong" to avoid criminal charges.

Under existing Utah law, the prosecutor must prove the animal owner knew he was being cruel to the animal. Pignanelli's bill would add the element of "criminal negligence" to the law to allow prosecutors to pursue cases even if the owner didn't know the neglect was illegal.

Said Pignanelli, "The ones we are going after are those who don't respond to puppy dogs with big sad brown eyes saying `take care of me.' "

Lt. Frank Crow of Salt Lake City Animal Control cited repeated cases where horses, cats and dogs were starved to death and had to be destroyed. In one case, 20 dead chickens and geese were found in the basement of a home. And in most of those cases, authorities were powerless to do anything about it.

"The current law allows cruelty to go on far too long before we can do anything," Crow said. "We need the ability to handle these situations before they get out of hand."

HB189 states an animal is abandoned if it is dropped off without food, water or care for more than 24 hours. It also requires animals be given "essential daily food, fresh potable water, air, space, light, protection from injury, exposure, weather extremes and annoyance, and other needs of the animal, including exercise and veterinary care."

Animal rights advocates say such wording eliminates loopholes in the law needed to give animals "a legal protection from atrocities. It's a positive step for people and animals," said Kathy Cetron, Utah Coalition for Animals.

HB189 has passed the House State and Local Affairs Committee, and now goes to the House floor where rural lawmakers promise to oppose it. Pignanelli said he will amend the bill to exclude domesticated animals raised for commercial purposes, like cattle, pigs and even mink.

Cruelty or just country living?

But rural lawmakers are still concerned. If cattle are exempted from the law, would the exemption also apply to the horse the rancher rides to herd his cattle? What about the dogs used to herd cattle and sheep? Does it mean ranchers would be forced to build barns for their domesticated animals and carry their farm dogs in portable kennels?

"Yes," said Rep. Joanne Milner, D-Salt Lake, herself an animal rights advocate and vegetarian.

"I admit I live in an urban area and it's hard for me to understand the rural concerns. But it's hard for me to see even farm animals exposed to the elements. Farmers, like anyone else, need to see the animals' frame of reference. The principles of proper treatment of animals are as applicable to rural Utahns as they are to those living on the Wasatch Front."

Rep. David Adams, R-Monticello, a rancher, says farmers love animals more than anyone and that their livelihood depends on the proper care of farm animals. But reality dictates that farm life by its very nature is cruel by urban standards. And he says passing either bill would "make criminals out of everyone in San Juan and Grand counties."

"We are all for getting at those people who are cruel to animals, but this is going too far," Brown added.