Animal Abuse

The prosecution of a case of animal abuse and/or neglect depends on the specific language of statutes that are under the jurisdiction of the enforcement/regulatory agency. These statutes vary tremendously depending on locality. These statutes commonly use the term "animal cruelty” instead of “animal abuse,” reflecting the era in which they were adopted by states and provinces. These statutes commonly center on the prohibition of an act inflicted upon an animal which would cause the animal to suffer unnecessary harm. Language contained in many of the statutes may also consider the intentionality of the act. This language often appears to be an attempt to separate intentional abuse from inadvertent harm.

Legal definitions vary by state or locality and may list very specific acts such as burning, drowning, torturing, tormenting, and so on. The definition of animal cruelty or abuse may also include vague language such as “overdrive” or “overload.” When the legal definition is vague, it is the prosecutor’s decision, based on the findings of the investigation and examination of the animal, if a specific act or failure to act rises to the level of torment, torture, overload, and so on. The relevance of where the act, and the suffering it inflicts, falls on the spectrum of “torment” to “torture” is that, for many localities, "torment” is used to describe crimes classified as misdemeanors, whereas “torture" is often restricted to crimes charged as felonies.

Legal definitions often contain several exclusions. The most common exclusions are hunting, veterinary procedures, standard agricultural practices, and certain pest control actions. Depending on the locality (state, province, etc.), certain species may be excluded. For example, in New Mexico, insects and reptiles are excluded in the definition of animals (Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Michigan State Animal Legal and Historical Center). Therefore, if a person harms a collection of snakes, the crime of animal cruelty cannot be charged, but another crime such as destruction of property might be allowed as the snake collection was considered property of the owner. References such as Animal Protection Laws of the United States of America and Canada (Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Michigan State Animal Legal and Historical Center) provide updated information on statutes for the United States and Canada.

Again, the role of the person supplying the veterinary forensic services for these cases is to provide a complete, detailed, unbiased, fully documented evaluation of the animal, so the judicial system can determine the presence or absence of a crime. In the case of a live animal, this live evidence is subject to change. A very important piece of the evaluation and documentation may be, depending on the nature of the case, the change of the animal’s condition over time. This will be discussed further in the section on Animal Assessment of Animal Neglect and Abuse Cases.

Society's Concern with Animal Abuse Cases

Animal abuse is of significant concern to most of today’s societies. This concern is reflected in the attention that these cases receive from the public and the media. Particularly disturbing to society are acts of intentional abuse in which there is deliberate abuse, torture, or killing. Based on the reported association between animal abuse and interpersonal violence (commonly referred to as “The Link”), there is a legitimate fear that these perpetrators are a danger to society now and in the future.

Animal cruelty was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1987 (DSM III-R). Animal cruelty was listed as diagnostic of conduct disorder in the list for “destruction of property.” In later revisions, MDSM-IV (1994) and DSM-V (2013)—animal cruelty is listed as “associated with violence against others.”

Researchers have noted the connection between serial killers and their prior acts of animal abuse. Also noted is the common history of previous acts of animal abuse and juveniles who commit school shootings. Animal abuse also occurs in the context of domestic violence, elder abuse, and child abuse as a method of the abuser to manipulate and control the victim. Domestic violence and its link with animal abuse are discussed in Chapter 15.

As a result of the recognition of the link between animal abuse and other crimes of violence, cross-training of animal control officers, child protective service workers, adult protective service workers, and others who may encounter victims of violence is becoming more common.

Types of Animal Abuse

There are several classifications of animal abuse. They include but not are limited to physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, organized abuse (animal fighting), and ritualistic abuse.

Physical abuse is what most people think of when they hear of incidents of animal abuse or animal cruelty. It is the act of causing direct harm to an animal by hitting or kicking an animal or inflicting other types of blunt force trauma, sharp force trauma such as the cutting or stabbing of an animal, shooting an animal with a gun or arrow, burning, drowning, suffocating, or other similar act. Typically, physical abuse results in the diagnosis of "nonaccidental injury.”

Emotional abuse was introduced in the previous section of this chapter. Conditions that may be considered emotional abuse include:

  • 1. Keeping a social animal (one that typically lives in a pack or herd) in isolation
  • 2. Keeping an animal in a small space such that it cannot exhibit normal postures or activities
  • 3. Housing an animal so that it cannot exercise or move about freely
  • 4. Housing an animal in an environment devoid of mental stimulation appropriate for the age, sex, species, and traits of the animal
  • 5. Maintaining an animal in an environment where it has no control or ability to avoid aversive conditions
  • 6. Maintaining an animal in an environment in which it is repeatedly exposed to danger and has no escape from the unsafe conditions (McMillan, 2005; Merck, 2013)

Sexual abuse of animals is discussed in Chapter 6.

Abandonment is a legal definition that can vary by state or jurisdiction, but it typically means forsaking an animal without making any provisions for its care or needs. Abandonment can be considered as a type of animal abuse, or it may have its own criminal statute. For example: NC General Statute § 14-361.1 Abandonment of Animals states: "Any person being the owner or possessor, or having charge or custody of an animal, who willfully and without justifiable excuse abandons the animal is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”

Organized abuse refers to arranged fighting of animals. This is typically dogfighting and cockfighting but there are other types of animal fights. This subject is discussed in Chapter 13.

Ritualistic abuse is a form of abuse in which animals are mutilated, tortured, and/or killed as part of a cultural or religious observance or practice. Some religions that may involve animal abuse include Brujeria, Palo Mayombe, Neopaganism, Satanism, Santeria, Voodoo, Vooduon, Wicca, and Witchcraft (Touroo, 2011).

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