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January/February 2004
What 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 abusers accountable.

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 abuse.

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 as:

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 who can.

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 arise.

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.

Photographic evidence
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 animal’s surroundings.

• 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 curriculum.

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.


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