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50 State Felony Cruelty Laws! Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

The governor of South Dakota signed into law a bill that will create a new felony penalty for extreme cruelty to animals.
The governor of South Dakota signed into law a bill that will create a new felony penalty for extreme cruelty to animals.

Last Friday, more than two centuries after Massachusetts became the first state to punish animal cruelty as a felony offense, the governor of South Dakota signed into law a bill that will create a new felony penalty for extreme cruelty to animals. This is a momentous milestone, and everyone in the animal welfare movement should take a moment to recognize its significance. Finally, all fifty states will have felony-level penalties for animal cruelty.

Back in the 1980s when we first began working for the enactment of stronger animal cruelty laws, only four states classified animal cruelty as a serious crime; the rest punished animal cruelty – no matter how heinous and appalling – as a mere misdemeanor offense. A felony conviction means law enforcement and the public take the crime seriously, the offense goes on your record, and you can serve time in a state penitentiary and/or pay a substantive fine. If someone wrote a bad check, possessed drugs, or committed certain forms of vandalism, those acts could be punished as a felony offense. However, if someone brutally tortured a dog, they were only subject to a misdemeanor -- basically a slap on the wrist. This made no sense from a legal standpoint and certainly not from a cultural and common sense framework.

A few states recognized the importance of treating animal cruelty as a serious crime early on. Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Rhode Island all had felony animal cruelty penalties in place at the turn of the 19th century; Michigan followed suit in 1931. Then movement was relatively quiet until Wisconsin pushed for a felony penalty in 1986 and that energized the animal welfare community. Felony cruelty laws became a major focus and there was a huge effort to educate the public about the link between violence towards animals and violence towards humans. We were even able to get assistance from the FBI. The ripple effect took hold, and by the end of 2000, 31 states had strengthened their anti-cruelty laws to make these crimes punishable by a felony penalty. During the last 14 years, 19 more states have enacted felony cruelty laws.

Reaching the 50-state mark is certainly a laudable achievement, but we cannot celebrate without noting shortcomings in some of these felony cruelty laws – loopholes and exemptions that let some of the worst abusers completely off the hook.

When the corporate agriculture industry and other animal exploiters knew that felony cruelty laws were inevitable – a credit in itself to animal welfare advocates – they stepped in to protect themselves. Language was added to the most recent laws enacted in the Dakotas to exclude persons engaged in customary practices in farming, breeding, exhibiting, boarding, transporting, raising animals, controlling predators, hunting legal game, and more activities involving animals. In South Dakota, even if someone tries to prosecute an offense to a livestock animal that does not clearly fall under one of these exemptions, the Animal Industry Board, composed of representatives of the livestock industry, holds power over the entire process. In other states, only cruelty against dogs and cats can be a felony offense. These groups exploit animals and position themselves to be above the law, sending the message that they have the right to do whatever they want to animals, without consequence.

So yes, there are now 50 states with felony penalties, which finally elevates animal abuse to the same level as other serious crimes. But just as a prohibition on child abuse would be ridiculous with an exemption for parents, teachers, and daycare workers, the gaping exemptions in these new laws are travesties of justice.

So the fight is not over. The ASPCA and their members will continue to work to close loopholes and remove outrageous exemptions so that all animal abuse is taken seriously and adequately punished. Animal protection has made incredible advances in the last decades, and the advocates who fought so hard to reach this 50-state milestone deserve both a huge congratulations and nothing less than our best effort to make those advances count.

For more information on the ASPCA, or to join the Advocacy Brigade, please visit

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