is Animal Cruelty?
By Kristi Adams
Many people who witness or hear about cruelty are not aware that legal
action can be taken, but companion animals are covered primarily by
state animal cruelty laws. These laws vary from state to state and county
to county, and may be confusing to people who want to help animals but
are not clear on what constitutes animal cruelty. The following is a
guide to better prepare people to help abused animals and hold their
What is Animal Cruelty?
Examples of animal cruelty include obvious abuse, dog fighting and cock
fighting, companion animals being neglected, and wildlife being unjustifiably
tortured. Generally, animal cruelty can be divided into two categories:
neglect and intentional cruelty.
Neglect is the failure to provide an animal with the most basic requirements
of food, water, shelter and veterinary care. Neglect may be the result
of simple ignorance and is usually handled by requiring the guardian
to correct the situation. If the problem is not corrected, the animal
may be removed by law enforcement authorities. In some cases, the guardian
will simply turn the animal over to authorities because they no longer
want the responsibility.
Intentional cruelty—often more shocking and usually an indicator
of a serious human behavior problem—is when an individual purposely
inflicts physical harm or injury on an animal. Organizations with cruelty
investigation authority have arrested many individuals for deliberately
maiming, torturing or even killing animals. Although many individuals
are arrested for intentional cruelty, people who commit even the most
heinous crimes against animals are often not prosecuted to the full
extent of the law. In states where animal cruelty is considered a misdemeanor,
individuals who commit intentional cruelty crimes against animals can
receive, at most, one year in jail and a $1,000 fine; often, perpetrators
receive no more than probation.
Someone who is violent towards animals may be violent towards family
members or other people. If you are ever in doubt, don’t hesitate
to call the authorities. It is better to be safe than too late.
What is being done?
Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia currently have laws
that make intentional cruelty a felony charge, while 12 states treat
both neglectful and intentional cruelty as a misdemeanor.
Do animal cruelty laws cover all animals?
Unfortunately, many animal cruelty laws still specifically exclude animal
husbandry practices involving farm animals, as well as animals used
in research, and lawful hunting and trapping of wildlife.
Who would abuse an animal?
Violence is often motivated by a desire to exert power and control.
Understanding the motivations for abuse help to identify perpetrators
and victims. Typical forms of animal abuse include:
In violent households, abusive parents can threaten to hurt or kill
household pets to manipulate children, for example, to force them to
remain silent about physical or sexual abuse.
Women in abusive relationships are often afraid to leave because of
what the abuser might do to the companion animals. This is exacerbated
by the fact that most relief shelters do not accept pets. Threats to
abuse pets are also used to coerce and silence partners from reporting
Children may also take a pet’s life to preempt an abusive parent
from killing the pet. In some cases, children with severe disturbances
will kill animals to rehearse their own suicide.
Many states now require the person convicted of cruelty to undergo psychological
evaluation and counseling, in addition to paying a fine or being imprisoned.
An increasing number of states are instituting cross training and reporting
programs involving social service workers who are likely to see cases
of animal abuse during the course of their work in domestic violence
and child abuse. This development arises from research validating the
link between animal abuse and human violence.
A number of states provide civil and criminal immunity to veterinarians
who report suspected cases of animal abuse to law enforcement authorities
since they are likely to be the first ones to come in contact with an
abused animal. Enforcement of animal cruelty laws can be carried out
by local police or by humane or municipal agencies that are granted
power from the government.
Can I investigate animal cruelty?
One of the best ways to prepare for when you see an animal suffering
from abuse is to know the local people equipped to deal with animals—such
Humane Society personnel and animal cruelty/control officers
You will find it helpful and necessary to enlist the assistance of the
local humane society or animal and dog control officers. They often
are familiar with the people in the community, the local laws and are
aware of animal related complaints that may have occurred in the past.
In addition, they have or know of facilities to which seized animals
can be taken.
It is important to find out if the local shelter has the capacity and
capabilities to accommodate extra animals, and exotic or farm animals
on an emergency basis. If the local shelter cannot accommodate an influx
of animals, it may be able to enlist the aid of other shelters or individuals
It is also good to know of any groups in your area that specialize in
rescuing specific types of dogs, cats, or exotic animals.
Local stables, farmers, sanctuaries
Some cruelty complaints will involve large and/or farm animals. In some
cases, a problem might arise in removing the animals from the circumstances
because many shelters do not have facilities to accommodate them.
To be prepared, become familiar with the nearby stables, sanctuaries
and farmers who are sympathetic to the plight of abused animals. Ask
if they would be receptive to boarding such animals should the need
You might also find out who is responsible for the local fair grounds.
Most fair grounds generally contain barns or large buildings on the
property. You might ask if they could be used on a temporary basis if
the need arises.
District Attorney’s Office
Feel free to write or call the District Attorney’s (DA’s)
office to make them aware of cases of animal abuse. Because animal cruelty
cases may be becoming more prevalent, it is important to establish contact
with the DA’s office early and maintain it throughout a case.
There are several elements the DA’s office considers in determining
whether to prosecute an animal cruelty case: the strength of the evidence,
the admissibility of the evidence, the background and history of the
offender, the experience and training of the arresting officer, and
the recommendations of the arresting officer.
The importance of photographs cannot be over-emphasized; your objective
should be to show the neglect or cruelty that prompted you to contact
the local animal enforcement.
Remember, animals cannot generally be brought into the courtroom, and
even if they could, their physical condition may have improved by the
time the case goes to court. Thus, it is critical that a judge or jury
see the poor condition the animals were in the day you did. No amount
of verbal testimony can convey the suffering as well as photographs,
which clearly depict emaciation, injuries, filthy conditions, etc. They
validate all you have to say.
Pictures may also help motivate local animal authorities to take action.
If you are involved in a case and cannot get a response from the animal
authorities near you, contact the DA with a polite letter of complaint
and any photographs you have taken.
Guidelines for taking photos
• Take pictures of the animal from various angles, and of the
• Certain details of the animal’s appearance will demonstrate
neglect; for example, skin infections, sores, overgrown toenails, overgrown
hooves. Take close-up photos of any such details.
• Take photos of all animals present, including any dead ones.
• If there are many animals or if some of them look alike, identify
each with an ID number. This can be done in a simple manner by using
a thick black marker to write a large identifying number on a sheet
of paper and placing the numbered sheet in all pictures of that animal
• If you have access to a camcorder, you can use it to show any
problems the animal may have in moving about. In addition, you can use
it to record the entire scene relating to the condition of the animals.
What do I do with the evidence?
Obtain three copies of the photos or videotape. Provide one to the local
shelter and District Attorney’s Office, and keep one for yourself
in a safe spot (it is always a good idea to have a veterinarian look
at the images if possible).
Other ways you can help animals
Educate yourself and take an active part in passing legislation. Teaching
future generations to respect all life will make our society more humane.
Make sure schools in your town include humane education as part of their
If you want to adopt a companion animal, go to your local shelter or
breed rescue group first. If you live with a companion animal, be responsible
and provide annual veterinary check-ups and preventative medical care;
spay or neuter your cat or dog to reduce pet overpopulation and urge
your friends to do the same.
Support your local animal rescue organization or shelter with donations
of money, food or supplies. Volunteering your time or fostering a shelter
animal—which helps to socialize abused or frightened animals before
they are adopted—is a good way to make a difference.
Kristi Adams is a longtime vegan and animal rights
activist. She is a certified animal rehabilitator and employed as an
animal cruelty officer with the New York City Animal Care and Control.
She currently lives in Brooklyn with her two rescued children, Rottweiler,
Brittany and New Yorkie, Bruno.