I talked to RI Representative Raymond Gallison today. He wrote and sponsored two bills in the legislature "Relating to Cruelty to Animals". It was a revelation.
The first bill, in 2005 aimed to ban animal circuses in the state because of their dreadful record of cruelty to their charges- specifically elephants. Gallison said he was spurred to present the bills because he had worked at the Civic Center and watched circus people mistreat the pachyderms by whipping them in the joints and dragging them with bullhooks in their mouths. That stuck in his craw for a long time, and then, when a "petting zoo" came to Warwick in 2004 and the people who went to it were pretty universally appalled at the bad treatment the riding elephant received and he saw the same folks set up the next day in Warren, he decided he had to do something to relieve the elephant's plight. There was a lot of action on the 2005 bill, with a lot of resistance from other reps who didn't want to stand against such a kid-centered activity as the circus coming to town. By the time Gallison and his co-sponsor, Charlene Lima, presented a similar, but less specific, bill to committee in 2006, the issue was basically dead. It sat until the end of session and demised in a drawer. We talked about upcoming options in 2009.
So far, I've found that these weren't the first anti-cruelty laws on the books in the state. The first I could dig up was in effect from 1857-72. It was pretty specific as to who deserved the thumbs down for various crimes against animals, and their punishement was clear, too. "for every such offense," the law read "[law breakers] shall be punsihed by imprisonment in jail or State work house, or house of correction, not exceeding one year, or by fine not exceeding two hundred and fifity dollars, or by both such fine and imprisonment". An updating of the statues in 1956 were much more extensive, but held a lot of the same provissions.
I also talked to a friend who'd spent her Peace Corps years in Africa. She said she loved going to the game reserves and watching the elephants in their natural habitat. "Majestic. Awe-inspiring. But when I came back to the states and saw them in their tiny zoo enclosures and took my kids to the circus, it broke my heart," she said.
More as things progress...