Animal Cruelty Investigations get considerable press coverage these days. When a theme becomes popular to report, reporting often comes quickly from multiple sources and lacks fact checks. Industrial espionage is the only other area in which individuals are so motivated to spy on others. This vigilante culture has resulted in a Federal law specifically labeling some of these actions as terrorism. So what are the common misperceptions about animal cruelty as a crime?
MYTH: Investigating animal cruelty as a crime is a new idea.
No. Wildlife veterinarians, entomologists, and biologists have been involved in criminal or forensic sciences for as long as landowners have limited access to hunting grounds. Wildlife scientists used DNA testing and hair samples long before crime scene investigators applied it to capital crimes. Necropsies, or animal autopsies, to find cause of death have been common practice for veterinary hospitals all along, especially in laboratories or on farms where contagious disease is carefully monitored.
MYTH: The law does not take crimes against animals seriously.
Yes it does. It used to be a capital crime to steal a horse. All 50 states have felony provision for egregious acts of cruelty. Most people didn't know that some misdemeanor charges carried greater fines and jail time than felonies in other categories so a movement to add felony categories in each state followed. Crimes against animals don't rely on victims as witnesses because the witness is not reliable. Dogs who have been mistreated often are friendly and happy to be with their abuser. But this the case with other domestic violence, too. So relying on evidence is the better strategy.
Since evidence is sometimes alive, it can be complicated to present in court. When jail time is involved search warrants and Miranda rights are a necessary part of processing the crime scene but animal control officers may not have powers of arrest or access to fingerprint analysis or training in evidence collection. Proving that a crime occurred also requires more than circumstantial evidence. A person accused of a jailable offense must be the only person with access and must have intended harm. In many cruelty cases the victim roams freely and has suffered from ignorance rather than purposeful action. It is often the right choice to proceed with civil action that can result in restrictions on future access to animals, fines and supervision for the accused than to charge criminally and lose the case because stupidity does not always respond to jail as a cure.
MYTH: Treating Animals as property devalues them.
This one needs to be addressed. There is more to a dog dog than his replacement cost and the law DOES recognize this. The law treats living animals as unique, similar to a family heirloom or museum piece in determining its dollar value as well as recognizing that a living being cannot be replaced at any cost. Some people seek to change the status of a non human from property to "ward" as in guardianship. The problem with this is that it returns to a time in which animals suffer the consequences of their own actions. Since they don’t understand human moral constructs they are often put to death for killing livestock or biting children. Animal status as property allows an owner to intervene and pay fines or construct enclosures instead of having the animal pay the ultimate price. Property status of animals protects you from a government agency taking your pet without due process (warrant, probable cause and notification). As a mere guardian you can lose your pet or work mate by judgement of an official without notice.
MYTH: Animal Cruelty is rampant.
Not at all. In 50,000 cases reported to the ASPCA in 2007, about 100 resulted in findings of wrongdoing and arrest. National animal rescue groups estimate that about 2 million dogs enter shelters each year and about 3 million cats. That is less than 3% of estimated population of dogs and cats. Most come to shelters because of a family crisis, not abuse or mistreatment. Of those who are in poor condition, many were stray animals with no owner to provide care. Cases of animal cruelty are rare. That is part of the reason they are so upsetting when they are reported, especially cases in which large numbers of animals are found in one case.
MYTH: Undercover Investigations are needed to expose cruelty.
In some cases. If an animal victim has no outward signs of mistreatment or his symptoms can be attributed to multiple causes, an investigator may consider undercover investigation. These operations have been successful in exposing crimes such as animal fighting or trafficking. But an actor willing to develop a working relationship with suspects is not easy to develop. The person must be knowledgeable and willing to misrepresent his position in important matters to collect evidence. It may be dangerous to lie to criminals so the investigator should be trained and guided by law enforcement so that any evidence collected will be admissible in court and support will be available during and after the investigation.
Activists may lack training but they always lack objectivity. They undertake investigations with the intent of finding criminal activity, not facts or truth. They often work undercover for months witnessing crimes they don’t report so as to keep their cover, thus allowing the very activities they protest to continue. People can become psychologically unstable in such situations.
A trained investigator would recognize a likely target for investigation as a person with access to information and a bravado that hints at a willingness to share information with new people. The problem is the trained investigator also knows this person to be prone to exaggerating. While using a person like this to gather information might be valuable, the training to assess how to handle a person who makes things up and may have a personal relationship with the target suspect is critical.
MYTH: AG GAG laws favor animal abusers.
This one is frustrating. Laws that single out farms for special protection from scrutiny would be a bad idea and activists who characterize restrictions on undercover work as “Agricultural Gag Orders” are hoping you'll believe that's what these laws would do. It's not true. A proposed law in Tennessee required undercover actors to report any crime witnessed within 48 hours. This is the opposite of a “gag” effect and yet was panned by activists who want to sit on evidence until it is edited for prime time trial by media.
Another law which passed in the Midwest, prohibited gaining access to a farm by force or fraud, including by falsifying information on a job application. This law in no way hampers employees from blowing the whistle on coworkers or company policies that violate the law or cause harm to animals.
MYTH: Liberals are trying to make animals equal to people or Conservatives do not respect the concerns of non humans at all.
Drawing party lines on animal issues doesn’t work. Rick Santorum sponsored a radical animal rights proposal to put all owners of intact dogs who sell puppies under Federal scrutiny called the PUPS Act. Unions in NY oppose the carriage horse ban to protect working families from job losses. Every animal care issue may have several aspects that bounce between protection of the innocent and government oversight. There really are no party animals.
I hope this helps you sort through some of the hype about animal cruelty and how to reduce and eventually eliminate it. Until you are sure of the unintended consequences of new laws, be careful what you vote for.