If your cat is planning to have kittens, you better take a number. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has hatched the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). The NAIS comes in response to fears of mad cow disease and bioterrorism, even though there are at most three instances of mad cow disease in U.S. history and no documented instances of animals being used for bioterrorism.

This program, which began on a voluntary basis in 2004, becomes mandatory this year for 25 percent of premises where animals are kept. Eventually, all premises will be required to register their animals with the government or face criminal penalties, including a fine of $1,000 per day. Every animal on the premises must be given a radio-frequency identification tag (RFID).

States can choose to administer the program themselves. For example, the Texas Legislature has charged the Texas Animal Health Commission with doing so. After an avalanche of protests from small farmers at their last meeting, the Commission will convene again on May 4 to consider whether to begin enforcing mandatory registration.

Each state can determine the definition of a “premise.” Texas and most other states will likely exclude private pets, but persons who raise or transfer animals will be covered. Accordingly, if a litter of kittens is born and the owner wishes to sell or give them away, the owner must register his premises and tag the kittens with a 15-digit electronic identification device. While large agribusiness operations may have the wherewithal to implement this scheme, small farmers throughout the nation are bracing for an unbearable regulatory burden. Even high school 4-H or FFA programs will have to comply with this mandate, although the Commission is considering an amendment to allow them to register each project rather than every animal.

Small ranchers are worried that the compliance costs of registering their premises and animals will make their business an endangered species. Harold Renfro, a Nacogdoches County rancher, told the Lufkin Daily-News, “I think that this is an undermining of the small farmers, and ranchers. I believe that this is just another way to get people to quit farming and raising their own livestock. They have already put the small packing houses out of business because of all the red tape.”

The red tape associated with the NAIS does not end after a premises owner registers his premises and tags and registers his animals. Rather, the burden continues as the owner must report, within 24 hours, any missing animal, any missing tag, the sale of an animal, the death of an animal, the slaughter of an animal, the purchase of an animal, the movement of an animal off the farm or homestead, or the movement of an animal onto the farm or homestead.

The Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association stated in its comments to the Commission, “Not since Prohibition has any government agency attempted to enshrine in law a system, which so thoroughly stigmatizes and burdens common, everyday behavior and is so certain to meet with huge resistance from the citizens it unjustly targets.”

Like many burdensome and intrusive government programs, there are likely to be unintended consequences. For instance, a greater percentage of cattle or wild game may be raised in Mexico or Central America where the level of regulation and sanitation is lower than the U.S., even without the NAIS. This net result would be to lessen the safety of the beef and other animal products consumed by Americans.

Finally, why should an honest error in complying with this Orwellian program be a criminal offense? While House Bill 1361 passed last session by the Texas Legislature classifies the offense as only a Class C misdemeanor, that still means a $500 fine for each day a violation occurs plus court costs, which can add up to thousands of dollars. If the offender does not pay, he can be sent to county jail. If we must have an animal identification program, compliance should be treated as a civil matter, rather than making criminals out of a family whose cat has kittens or a small farmer struggling to navigate this regulatory labyrinth.

For centuries, Texans have lived off the land, raised livestock, and enjoyed the companionship of pets. What has changed to warrant making all of these private activities subject to registration and surveillance? The government has cried wolf and the public outcry has just begun.

Marc Levin is the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based research institute.