Working Against Cruelty

The slow, but promising, crackdown on animal abuse in America

By Susan Palmquist

While most pets are loved and respected by the people who bring them into their lives and homes, some animals aren’t so lucky. Companion animals can easily become the target of their guardian’s anger and frustration. Whether it’s the dog who is left outside all day without shelter or water, or the cat who becomes a punching bag, animal cruelty takes many forms.

Thankfully, animal welfare organizations and changes in legislation are leading to the arrest of more animal abusers, with many cases finally going to trial.

What’s on the Books

While anti-cruelty statutes don’t give animals specific rights per se, they do offer animals their primary, and sometimes only, form of legal protection. Every state and the District of Columbia has animal anti-cruelty statutes. Most of them prohibit abandoning an animal; intentionally or knowingly harming an animal; or failing to supply an animal with food, water, or shelter. The trick for prosecutors has been proving intent, which has meant that many abusers walk away unpunished. But the law is increasingly on the prosecution’s side. For instance, in 36 states, laws either allow or require the court to order defendants in animal cruelty cases to forfeit their right to “own” animals if convicted.

Besides many misdemeanor charges for anti-cruelty, 41 states and the District of Columbia also have felony-level penalties for certain types of cruelty, and many new laws passed in 2003 that lean toward imposing even stricter penalties. One form of animal cruelty that has gained notoriety and led to some felony convictions—is organizedanimal fights, especially with Pit Bull Terriers.

A recent case involved a Pittsville, Va., man who was the first person tried under the Federal Anti-Cruelty Law, signed by President Clinton in 1999. It took a jury only 45 minutes to convict Robert Stevens on three counts of selling dog-fighting videotapes. The federal law bans the knowing creation, possession, or sale of depictions of animal cruelty for profit. Stevens will be sentenced April 21 and could face up to 15 years in prison and a $750,000 fine.

On Air and In Towns

Helping to educate the public about animal cruelty and the laws against it is the award-winning Animal Planet program, “Animal Precinct,” which follows ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement officers on their day-to-day duties. “The show has had a huge impact on people’s awareness of animal cruelty,” says Ledy VanKavage, senior director of legislative services for the ASPCA National Shelter Outreach in Maryville, Ill. “Not a day goes by when the ASPCA doesn’t receive an e-mail or call [from someone] telling us they saw the show and could we go and investigate a case for them,” VanKavage says.

While calls and e-mails come from across the country, VanKavage says many viewers don’t realize that only agents in New York have police authority. The ASPCA is helping to train local police and sheriff’s departments to learn more about animal cruelty laws so they’re better equipped to deal with cases in their own communities. People who are interested in finding out more about the training aids offered by the ASPCA can call the ASPCA Government Affairs and Public Policy Department at (518) 465-2061.

Another organization that’s been addressing animal cruelty on a community level is the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in Gaithersburg, Md. In 1997, HSUS launched First Strike, a campaign that focuses on raising awareness of the connection between animal abuse and human violence. First Strike offers day-long workshops for local communities that involve area social workers, prosecutors, and police officers, and are tailored to that particular community’s needs.

“It’s very much a grassroots-based campaign and has been very well-received around the country,” says Ginger Beckett, First Strike campaign manager.

Making the Connection

Beckett says the First Strike e-newsletter now goes to 3,000 subscribers, including counselors, social workers, prosecutors, and people who see evidence of the connection between animal abuse and human violence. “I think we’re all aware that from an early age most serial killers often abuse animals, but many people don’t realize that animal abuse and family violence is prevalent in their own communities,” Beckett says.

In fact, according to the HSUS, animals in homes with family violence were usually victims of violent behavior, too. One study showed that animals were abused in 88 percent of homes where a child was abused.

Not all cases of animal cruelty are directed at dogs and cats, and this can create some blurry legal language. Minnesota’s anti-cruelty law is one case in point. In 1994, two brothers in Scott County intentionally starved 70 dairy cows. The brothers received a mere $700 fine and served no jail time. For the Minnesota Animal Rights Coalition, this was not good enough, says past president Mary Britton Clouse. The group gathered 30,000 signatures in an attempt to push forward the signing of an anti-cruelty statute.The group’s goal was to see every living creature included in this law, but this was not the outcome.

“Unfortunately, the bill passed on the second version, which did include animals like dogs and cats, but excluded farm animals and wildlife,” says Britton, who now runs Chicken Run Rescue in Minneapolis. The issue even divided the Minnesota animal rights community, Britton says.

On Aug. 1, 2002, Minnesota became the 33rd state to enact legislation making certain acts of cruelty to animals a felony. Its anti-cruelty statute also imposes a probation period during which time a person convicted of violating the law may not have “ownership” of the animal, must be subject to random visits from a control officer, must perform community service in a humane facility, and must undergo psychological counseling.

One case that did help shape Minnesota anti-cruelty laws involved a dog named Kona. Two boys in Columbia Heights beat the dog almost to death. They were arrested, but nothing was done. Kona survived the beating, but was left with brain damage and blindness in one eye. Britton says the case got so much publicity that it did a lot to raise the public’s awareness of animal abuse.

The majority of people working in animal welfare agree that the public’s awareness of animal cruelty is one of the keys to helping protect animals. There are many things you can do as well: Educate your children to respect animals; get involved in the legislative process; ask elected officials to support laws that aim to protect all animals; and get your pet spayed or neutered.

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