Upon Adjournment

This one's for the dogs

Column by Vic Vela
Posted

As someone who covers the state Legislature, it's common for me to write about lawmakers who fight like cats and dogs.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. Legislators will tell you that more than 90 percent of bills are passed with bipartisan support. No argument there.

But do they really expect the press to write about a unanimous resolution to designate the month of July as Go Fly a Kite Month? Not sure if that's something that's actually happened, but you get my point.

On the heavy-duty bills having to do with gun control and oil and gas regulations, lawmakers sure do know how to throw down, steel cage-style. They fight and scratch and claw and bite, and covering that messy business can get old after a while.

So imagine my delight when I found out that a group of lawmakers, who at times fight like cats and dogs, get together periodically to talk about taking care of cats and dogs — and other cute critters, large and small. The Colorado Legislative Animal Caucus, or CLAW, is made up of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who deal with any kind of legislation having to do with animals.

“We discuss all kinds of animal issues,” said state Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial, a caucus co-chairman. “Large animals like horses and cows and very small animals like reptiles and birds. We discuss everything.”

The caucus gets together to discuss potential legislation. The consensus on issues is non-binding, but it serves a starting point for animal bills that end up being introduced at the Capitol.

As a reporter who can lose political romance due to the often-ugly sausage-making process at the Capitol, I gotta tell you that it's kind of nice being able to recognize lawmakers who take time to craft legislation aimed at protecting our “Snausage” eating four-legged friends.

When folks think about the role of state legislators, they think of budget committees and floor votes. Few would guess that lawmakers convene as a special body to talk about animal welfare issues.

“I think some folks might be surprised,” said Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, a CLAW caucus member. “But, to be honest with you, 60 percent of the households in Colorado have either a dog or cat. They might be surprised if we didn't have a caucus.

“People love animals. Their little dogs and cats are like their children and grandchildren. I think a lot of people would be really proud to see their lawmakers looking out for the welfare of animals in the state.”

Caucus member Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, said it shouldn't come as any surprise that the legislature has its own caucus that deals with issues pertaining to animals.

“We have caucuses to talk about the disabled, veterans and rural Colorado,” she said. “Our constituents across the state have a gazillion of particular interests. And there is a huge population in this state who is concerned about animal welfare.”

While lawmakers who participate in the CLAW caucus do so out of a love for animals, not everything that the body deals with is touchy-feely legislation. They actually take up quite a few controversial issues. For example, last year the Legislature passed a bill that designates shelter dogs and cats as being the official state pet, something that spurred opposition from breeders and pet shop businesses.

And Lebsock introduced a bill that would limit the practice of tail docking, where a dairy cow's tail is partially amputated. That bill, which received opposition from dairy groups, didn't make it out of the Capitol last year, but Lebsock is pleased that the issue could end up on the ballot this fall.

So, just like any other issue, all politics is local when it comes to animal matters.

“I think legislators are reticent to vote against a bill that's helping dogs and cats,” Balmer said. “But when it comes to the large animal issues, you can almost predict how a legislator is going to come down on it based on how their district looks.”

If you know Balmer, his participation in the CLAW caucus should come as no surprise.He is known at the Capitol as the “dog legislator.”

Last year, Balmer sponsored legislation that created law enforcement training practices whenever cops encounter dogs at crime scenes. The legislation was spurred by incidents where dogs were shot and killed by officers who were responding to house calls. And this year, Balmer's bill to allow emergency medical personnel to provide medical care to domestic dogs and cats is expected to become law.

Balmer owns three dogs — two vizlas (a type of Hungarian hunting dog) and a German Long-haired pointer. Balmer boasts his love of dogs through his email tag, which reads: Be as good as your dog. The Centennial senator is a dog lover — and who can blame a guy for that?

“Dogs are inherently good,” he said. “They are always trying to celebrate your homecoming. When you go to the grocery store and come back home, it's a big deal for them. Any time you're having a sad day, your dog will sense it and comfort you. They are a greater creature of love than we are.”

Tell me about it. Bennie, my 11-year-old mystery mutt, has been a vital part of my life since he was a puppy. If I could point to the day when I fell in love with him, it was when I was watching a Cubs game on TV. Livid at the Cubs performance — which, as a Cubs fan, I often am — I threw my Cubs cap at the TV set in disgust.

Bennie, who was on the couch with me, looked up at me for a second, hopped off the couch, fetched my baseball cap and brought it back to me. Oh, the goosebumps I still get from that.

Most recently, I came home from a Super Bowl party, depressed and dejected from the Broncos' performance. I wanted nothing to do with anyone or anything. I flopped on the couch and stared at the wall, deflated and miserable. Bennie hopped on the couch, shook his tail and licked my face. Suddenly, life was so much better. The solace in having your heart broken is coming home to a dog who licks your wounds.

Balmer's love for dogs knows no bounds. He was a major in the Army reserves who served a tour in Afghanistan in 2002. The streets were full of stray Dogs of War who lacked food and veterinary care.

“They stayed with us and slept in the shade of our vehicles,” he said. “We weren't supposed to let them get in any of our vehicles, but a lot of our soldiers did. I always looked the other way.”

Court is touched whenever she comes across military veterans with service dogs, who provide companionship for soldiers in need of loyalty and love.

“Their pets are life-savers for them,” she said. “They are incredibly important members of their families.

Whenever Balmer leaves office, if he is remembered as being nothing other than a dog champion, he's totally OK with that.

“I couldn't be more proud of that label,” he said. “I have spent nine years at the Capitol developing a reputation as a conservative Republican, which I'm also proud of. But I am immensely proud to be known as the dog legislator. People are calling me that now and I couldn't be happier to have that moniker and wear it with pride.”

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