In New South Wales (Australia) a recent RSPCA case occurred banning “puppy killer” Nathan Thompson from having anything to do with animals for 10 years, after being charged with four counts of animal cruelty that led to the death of nine puppies (story, here). With the outpouring of public emotion on social media we thought it timely to consider our responses to animal cruelty.
In 2007 we conducted a study, published 2009, aimed at assessing public opinion about the Australian Criminal Justice System’s (CJS) approach to animal cruelty. Using rankings of 1=Not at all important, 2=Slightly important, 3=Important, 4= Very important, 5= Extremely important], we asked over 1200 members of the public the following questions:
- How important do you think it is for the CJS to take deliberate companion animal abuse seriously – when the victim is a DOG?
- How important do you think it is for the CJS to take deliberate companion animal abuse seriously – when the victim is a CAT?
We then asked respondents to adjudicate on the following issue providing the following options jail time, fine, probation, community service or no response:
- If a companion animal dies due to deliberate abuse what kind of response from the CJS is appropriate if that animal is a DOG?
- If a companion animal dies due to deliberate abuse what kind of response from the CJS is appropriate if that animal is a CAT?
This was followed by two questions asking respondents to rate, on a scale of 1-5, whether they thought the current legal penalties for deliberate companion DOG and CAT abuse are strong enough? [1=Not all strong enough, 2=Sometimes strong enough, 3=About right, 4=Usually too strong, 5=Always too strong]
We found over two thirds of respondents thought the CJS should take animal abuse seriously irrespective of cat/dog species. However, as shown in Table 1 below responses were a little higher for dogs:
Most respondents thought current penalties were not strong enough, again irrespective of the species in question, as shown in the graph below.
Finally, when we asked people what they thought should be done about animal abuse they thought jail time, fines or community service were appropriate responses.
“The general public are strongly in favour of the CJS considering animal abuse a serious crime which attracts serious penalties. Moreover the increasing number of animal crimes occurring and/or being reported are also testament to the fact that the CJS may well have to rethink their approach to animal cruelty … One way to begin to tackle this kind of abuse at its source is to firmly convey its unacceptability to the community at large as well as to the individual perpetrators … Evidence presented from the current study suggests not only that the public at large wish to see this response from the CJS but that they are sufficiently concerned about animal cruelty to support any future initiatives aimed at extending punitive measures for animal cruelty.”
You can find this study in full, here.
So outraged were members of the public that “Puppy killer” Nathan Thompson received death threats (video here). While we are not advocating the use of such threats we do think it shows how passionate many people are about ending companion animal cruelty. Many want animal cruelty perpetrators to receive harsher penalties. It is questionable whether this is possible within the current legal system, where animals are largely deemed property (see this pdf for overview). The Animal Justice Party, recognises this, calling for a new legal status for animals that recognizes them as sentient beings (see here for their full statement). We support this move, strongly believing that it is an important way to tackle animal abuse. Crucially, it sends strong signals to the community about the unacceptability of animal cruelty. As animal lawyers around the world point out, the legal system has a powerful role to play. Yet it is a task that must be shared by many individuals, groups and agencies concerned about animal rights and welfare.
It is significant that so many people react so strongly to animal abuse; even more than they do human abuse (for a study we did on this phenomenon, see here). Most are companion animal owners/lovers concerned for companion animals who mean something to them or others. Many provide loving care to abused animals still traumatised by its effects; effects now studied and reported on. Consider for instance, a recent study assessing the psychological and behavioural impact of abuse on dogs, (see earlier blog post on this).
The next step is to recognise the rights and welfare of animals beyond those that are human companions. We take the view that animals matter, in and of themselves, not just those with whom we form bonds. So we cannot remain fixated on companion animal rights to the exclusion of all other acts of animal cruelty. Geertrui Cazaux, in Beauty and the Beast: Animal abuse from a non-speciesist criminological perspective, points to the “selective indignation” whereby we focus on companion animal abuse but ignore large scale, industrial and terribly common forms of animal abuse. As she points out, this is speciesist (a system that unfairly favours one species over another) and dependent upon some animals being deemed subjects (such as ‘pets’) and others deemed as object (such as farm animals).
Only focussing on the animals we care about and integrate into our societies, cultures, lives and emotions, of course, leaves all the other species who suffer daily at the hands of human activity, out in the cold. Changes to the legal system must also take into account “stock” and “pest” animals as well as those we deem worthy to live with and love.
If you are interested in finding out more about animal law, Voiceless has some great resources.
Authors: Nik Taylor, Heather Fraser, Tania Signal.