What Is Animal Cruelty?

court houseThe definition of animal cruelty varies widely depending on what jurisdiction the cruel act occurs in. For example, up until as recently as 2006, China did not recognize animal cruelty as a thing and had no laws whatsoever regarding preventing animal cruelty.

Compare this with the United States and Europe, where animal cruelty is universally recognized and discouraged. Generally, animal cruelty is always associated with an act of violence or neglect inflicted upon an animal by a human. It can range from leaving your dog in a hot car with no air conditioning to participating in dog fights.

Neglect is the most common method of animal abuse, and it frequently involves something as simple as failing to clean, feed, or house your pet sufficiently. Neglect can also mean hoarding, failure to provide healthcare, or abandoning your pet. Direct abuse is less common but is equally as harmful and sick. Throughout human history, mankind regarded animals as existing for their benefit only. In modern day, societal norms have evolved to favor treating animals with respect and avoiding unnecessary harm when possible.

Animal Welfare Act

Today in the United States, states have different definitions of animal cruelty. For example, in 2003, West Hollywood banned the declawing of house cats. Declawing house cats is not considered animal cruelty in the vast majority of other jurisdictions in this country. The primary source of federal law regarding animal cruelty is the Animal Welfare Act of 1966. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the AWA was the first of its kind on the federal level.

The AWA’s purpose was to regulate the transport, sale, and handling of certain types of animals intended for research or other purposes. Although it was limited in scope to only certain animals used for research purposes, such a law was unheard of in United States history and represented a shift towards a future free of animal cruelty. Recently, the United States Senate passed a bill that would make the torture of animals a federal felony, punishable by fines and up to seven years in federal prison. The bipartisan bill got unanimous support in the Senate and will likely be signed into law by President Donald Trump.

How Can You Be Punished?

Animal cruelty penalties in Missouri are outlined in Section 578 of the Missouri Revisor of Statutes. In Missouri, a person is guilty of animal abuse when that person intentionally or purposefully kills or injured an animal in a way that is not permitted by law. A person can also be found guilty of animal abuse by failing to provide adequate care, causing substantial harm to that animal. Animal abuse in the State of Missouri is a Class A misdemeanor unless the defendant had been found guilty of animal abuse on a prior occasion. If that is the case, the defendant would be prosecuted for a Class D felony, which carries much worse criminal penalties.

The State of Missouri also criminalizes animal neglect. In Missouri, a person can be found guilty of animal neglect when he has custody or ownership of an animal and fails to provide adequate care. A person can also be found guilty of animal neglect if he abandons the animal, which is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 and imprisonment. If animal neglect is committed again by that same defendant, it is prosecuted as a Class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by imprisonment or a fine not to exceed one thousand dollars, or both.

What Do Other States Say?

The punishment for acts of animal cruelty varies greatly. State statutes which criminalize cruel acts against animals are commonplace but are not in any way uniform amongst the states. States often use different definitions associated with the term “animal cruelty.” Currently, 46 out of the 50 states have made acts of animal cruelty felonies, but most of the time they are misdemeanor offenses.

The state that is arguably the harshest on animal cruelty is California. California has a “three-strikes law” associated with animal cruelty, which means that habitual offenders (i.e. people who commit the same crime three times) are subject to increased sentences based on prior commissions of a crime. Therefore, in California if a person commits three acts of animal cruelty, they can potentially face a 25-year to life prison sentence. In Texas, animal cruelty in the form of direct abuse is a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in state prison and up to a $10,000 fine. Animal cruelty stemming from neglect is punishable as a misdemeanor in the third degree. If this occurs three times, the third act of neglect is prosecuted as a felony. Texas also mandates that minors who commit acts of cruelty must attend counseling.

Recent Incidents of Animal Cruelty

As Americans have become more and more intolerant of acts of animal cruelty, they are being covered in the media more and more frequently. While most Americans think of the Michael Vick case involving dog fighting, stories of animal cruelty pop up all over the country every day.

One recent case out of Memphis resulted in the arrest of two women who were keeping their dogs in small cages. Another from California involved a man who shot his dog and disposed of the body in a fire station dumpster. One other case out of New York involved a dog who was chained up for so long that it resorted to chewing its own leg off to escape. Although sad to think about, it is encouraging that modern laws are becoming harsher and harsher on these types of offenders.

Another often-reported scenario is leaving animals in cars during hot days. Especially in states like Texas, temperatures in cars can easily escalate to above 115 degrees on a normal summer day. Pets left in cars with no ventilation often succumb to heat strokes and death.

What to Do If You Witness an Act of Animal Cruelty

If you witness an act of animal cruelty, do not try to intervene. Usually the type of person who will inflict cruelty upon an animal is capable of doing the same to you. It is much safer and more effective to alert the proper authorities. Call your local police station and let them know what you saw, where you saw it, and when it happened. The police are trained to handle these types of cases and are qualified to develop it into a case for the local District Attorney’s office.

From a legal standpoint this is the best method because it allows evidence to be collected which can be used in a subsequent prosecution of the offender and therefore thwart that individual from ever harming an animal again. When you do report the cruel event, be sure to document and take photos or videos if possible. The police can use this in their investigation. It would also be helpful if you provided the officer with witnesses. This will allow the officer to get probable cause and therefore petition a judge for a search warrant, which will then result in the animal’s rescue. One sad aspect of animal abuse is that it changes the animal’s outlook on life. Being a personal injury attorney, I often handle cases involving dogs that have severely injured humans. It is sad to think that if these dogs had been raised in a better environment, my clients would have never been injured. Please take care of your animals, both for them and for society at large.