Animal Cruelty Laws & Cases

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Animal cruelty laws have been in use for over 100 years. The laws cover many issues including abuse, neglect, fighting for sport, and breeding. This lesson explains animal cruelty laws and briefly examines a few cases.

Animal Cruelty Laws

What happens when authorities find an unusually large number of animals living in a small, closed area? In one Montana case, two defendants were convicted for the crime of aggravated animal cruelty. Animal cruelty is a broad term that encompasses intentional violence against certain animals and unintentional abuse through a lack of care for certain animals. In this case, the defendants had confined 116 cats in two tractor trailers. The defendants claimed they rescued the cats, and that they were running a shelter. But evidence showed they did not have the proper resources to run a shelter and that over 100 of the cats were likely the result of breeding while in the defendants' custody.

You've probably seen cases like this in the news. Investigation and prosecutions are increasingly common, though animal cruelty is an age-old issue. Basic animal cruelty laws have been around since 1866, when the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA was formed. The ASPCA is a non-profit organization dedicated to animal rights. They initiate public policy through legislation, citizen campaigns, and consumer education efforts. Since its founding, hundreds of anti-cruelty laws have been put into place at the local, state, and federal levels. At the federal level, the Animal Welfare Act, or AWA governs the treatment of animals.

Animal welfare laws cover a variety of cruelty subjects and differ from state to state. Let's take a general look at a few of the more common animal cruelty laws.

Animal Abuse

Let's start with intentional cruelty, or animal abuse. All 50 states have enacted felony animal cruelty statutes covering the intentional, brutal abuse of animals. Oklahoma's Animal Protection Act is similar to most other state's laws. Its cruelty provision outlaws the willful or malicious torturing, destroying, killing, beating, injuring, maiming, or mutilating of any animal. Certain activities, like hunting and horse racing, are exempt but have strict restrictions.

Animal abuse cases are easy to spot, but not always easy to prosecute. For example, during the summer of 2015 several dogs in the Los Angeles area were attacked and burned using battery acid or a similar chemical. Seven dogs were found, but only five could be saved. Authorities do not know how many other dogs might have been attacked, and they do not know who attacked the dogs.

Animal Neglect

Cases of unintentional cruelty, or neglect, are more common than outright abuse. Neglect occurs when an owner or custodian fails to care for an animal due to either ignorance or indifference. Neglect cases often involve starving a pet, depriving a pet of water, failing to take a pet for veterinary care, or leaving a pet outside in extreme weather. City ordinances usually set out the minimum standards of care for animals. For example, Dallas requires an enclosed space of at least 150 square feet for dogs aged six months or older, and kept outside.

Animal hoarding, as in the Montana cat case, is also a form of neglect. Hoarding refers to collecting and keeping a large number of animals - many more than what local ordinances allow. Hoarding leads to poor animal care and unsanitary conditions. Though hoarders often believe they are helping the animals, hoarders typically suffer from mental health disorders.

Animal Fighting

Now let's take a look at animal fighting. This refers to organized sparring between animals, and sometimes also involves gambling on the results. Cockfighting in particular is a fairly common event, especially in some of the southern states, despite being illegal nationwide.

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