One of the most frustrating aspects of animal welfare is that prosecuting animal cruelty is incredibly difficult. People walk away free every single day from animals they have abused, neglected, and mistreated, and all too often the law either can’t or won’t do anything about it. WHY?
Let me offer a few reasons:
1. When individuals surrender animals to shelters, even in terrible condition, shelters rarely report the abuse.
Why? If people think they will be prosecuted for surrendering sick, injured, or neglected animals, they won’t turn them in. Instead, they will either let them die, dump them in the woods or on a road somewhere, or let them continue to suffer. The theory is that it’s better for the animals to let the people go. It’s also mostly impossible to prove that the person turning the animal in is responsible for the animal’s poor condition. All the person has to do is claim the animal is a stray.
2. Many law enforcement agencies are reluctant to pursue animal cruelty cases.
Sadly, the fact is that cops arrest thousands of people. If you figure that half of the people arrested each year get prosecuted, the numbers are still huge. To be quite honest, it’s triage. Law enforcement officers know that animal crimes are historically hard to prosecute and rarely carry jail time. From their perspective, that means that in many jurisdictions they are not a high priority in comparison to other types of crimes. I hope to see this change with the new federal classification of animal cruelty as a felony.
3. Animal cruelty laws are often poorly written, hard to enforce, and limited in scope.
The no chain law in Texas is a good example of a law that’s virtually impossible to enforce:
“§ 821.077. Unlawful Restraint of Dog
(a) An owner may not leave a dog outside and unattended by use of a restraint that unreasonably limits the dog’s movement:
(1) between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.;
(2) within 500 feet of the premises of a school; or
(3) in the case of extreme weather conditions, including conditions in which:
(A) the actual or effective outdoor temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit;
(B) a heat advisory has been issued by a local or state authority or jurisdiction; or
(C) a hurricane, tropical storm, or tornado warning has been issued for the jurisdiction by the National Weather Service.
(b) In this section, a restraint unreasonably limits a dog’s movement if the restraint:
(1) uses a collar that is pinch-type, prong-type, or choke-type or that is not properly fitted to the dog;
(2) is a length shorter than the greater of:
(A) five times the length of the dog, as measured from the tip of the dog’s nose to the base of the dog’s tail; or
(B) 10 feet;
(3) is in an unsafe condition; or
(4) causes injury to the dog.
Added by Acts 2007, 80th Leg., ch. 674, § 1, eff. Sept. 1, 2007.”
In order to enforce this law, someone would have to physically measure the chain, time the length of confinement, have documentation of the weather conditions, and keep eyes on the animal throughout the entire time the dog is chained. They would also have to find a cop willing to address this offense and a prosecutor willing to proceed under this wobbly law. A first offense is only a class C misdemeanor…ie, not much.
4. Witnesses are often unwilling to speak on record.
Friends, even if the police are willing to act, and the DA is ready to prosecute, THEY HAVE TO HAVE PROOF. Animal cruelty cases usually hinge on two things. First, they depend on veterinary evidence of abuse. Second, since the animals cannot speak for themselves, they need eye witness testimony by people who saw the abuse or neglect with their own eyes.
People complain that the cops won’t take action. Social media is full of folks ranting about the evils of animal cruelty. They talk about their neighbor’s chained dog, the guy down the street who threatened to poison the neighborhood cats, the skinny dogs they see chained up on their way to work. Sometimes they make anonymous phone calls to Animal Control. Sometimes people call the cops, but refuse to identify themselves. They don’t want to get involved. They’re afraid of retaliation, or of upsetting the neighbors, or of having to testify. And if they won’t speak up, on record, the criminals go free.
5. Cruelty in animal shelters is historically the hardest to prove and prosecute.
Shelter animals are an incredibly vulnerable population. No one owns them. No one will ever look for most of them. They are at the mercy of the people charged with their care. Thank God, most of those people genuinely care about the animals and work hard to take care of them to the best of their ability. (They sure don’t do it for the money!)
Texas state laws give tremendous discretion to shelter employees. Their jobs put them in constant contact with stray animals, with the added responsibility of deciding whether those animals will live or die once their stray hold expires. Because animals often come in sick, malnourished, or injured, it’s hard to prove that a particular animal’s injuries happened in the shelter. Because shelters can legally euthanize any animal they choose once the hold time passes, it’s easy to get rid of evidence. Because the law is quite vague about what constitutes proper care of the individual animal, it’s hard to prove that employees are not meeting those standards. And no one wants to talk about it.
That does not make it impossible.
EVERY TIME we witness animal cruelty, regardless of where, regardless of who does it, we have a moral imperative to take action.
On those rare occasions when abusers exploit shelters to get access to animals, when people neglect the animals in their charge, every single employee, volunteer, and adopter has both the right and the obligation to speak up. We all say every single day that we are their voice. We can’t be their voice when it’s comfortable and easy unless we are willing to speak for them when it isn’t.
Friends, if you believe that you have witnessed animal cruelty or neglect, take pictures. Document everything you can without putting yourselves in physical danger. And then file a report with local law enforcement. It’s the right thing to do.