On the island of Oahu: drowned in a bathtub by a roommate’s boyfriend. In suburban Massachusetts: shot and killed by a neighbor in their yard. Out in Pennsylvania: stabbed to death by a loved one strung out on methamphetamines.
They’re grisly murders that under ordinary circumstances might compel a judge to slap the perpetrators with life imprisonment, or worse. But these victims aren’t people—they’re pets—and the way the justice system prosecutes the crimes against them is infinitely more complicated.
As much as some people feel that their pets are members of the family, the courts don’t see it that way. Legally, animals in America are treated as property. The laws around these animals are left, by and large, to the individual states.
But there are exceptions, where the federal government steps in.
NFL quarterback Michael Vick, for example, was charged on both federal and state counts for running a dogfighting ring. But that’s only because his ring crossed state lines—there isn’t a federal animal-cruelty law.
Still, even without universal federal recognition, the court system seems to be tilting in Fido’s favor. In 2014, South Dakota became the 50th and final state to enact a felony animal-cruelty law—up from only seven states 25 years ago.
Defining an Animal
Of course, you can’t prosecute animal cruelty without first deciding what an “animal” is. On that, there’s surprisingly little consensus. Because while every state agrees that dogs count, if you catch a neighbor poisoning your pet gerbil the offense might be prosecuted in all sorts of ways, depending on the jurisdiction.
In Pennsylvania for example, animal-cruelty protections are applied to “domestic fowl” and “domestic animals,” the latter of which includes “any dog, cat, equine animal, bovine animal, sheep, goat or porcine animal” and those creatures only. That means cruelty to a gerbil comes with marginal legal consequence compared with what a perpetrator might face in Missouri, where the protective definition of animals extends to “every living vertebrate except a human being.” A pretty broad definition, although defenders of the brilliant octopus might beg to differ.
The animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) wants to see the definition of “animal” expanded even more broadly.
Delcianna Winders, vice president and deputy general counsel of Captive Animal Law Enforcement for PETA says that in the future her organization is pushing for a definition where “the key aspect would be sentience,” rather than a spine. “The ability to feel pain and suffer should entitle you to basic protections,” she says.
Winders also says that the ultimate goal of the group is to anoint legal personhood and the rights therein to those animals who do experience sentience.
A lot of people see that position as extremist, though, so if you roll your eyes at it you’re not alone. But even putting the issue of animal sentience aside, many government agencies tacitly behave as if animal cruelty isn’t serious enough to investigate.
The Future of Animal Rights
Setting up the necessary mechanisms to reliably bring animal cruelty to justice is a major obstacle, says Diane Balkin, senior staff attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s (ALDF) Criminal Justice program. That’s because laws that protect animals from abuse are of little use if agencies don’t bother to enforce them.
“Animal crimes are unique, because the victim can never tell you what happened,” Balkin says. “At times it’s woefully under-investigated and under reported… one of the greatest challenges is to get a jurisdiction to take these cases seriously and prosecute them.”
One way groups like PETA hope to see those rights expanded is by opening a new agency—the Animal Protection Bureau—to oversee enforcement on the Animal Welfare Act, a federal bill that was originally passed in 1966 to provide basic protections to laboratory animals but has been expanded several times since.
“There’s an inherent conflict of interest having an agency [the United States Department of Agriculture] whose primary task is to promote the sale of animals also being charged with protecting animals,” says Winders.
Meanwhile, others have eyes on more modest goals—in New York State, the state assembly is considering a bill that would make it the first state in the nation to ban the declawing of cats.
That’s great news for Shadow! Less so for your couch.