Animal Cruelty Cases

By K. Michelle Welch

In the last two years, following the much-publicized dogfighting case involving pro football player Michael Vick, animal cruelty has taken center stage in the press. For those of us on the front lines of these issues, it hearkened a new era. Our neighbors and colleagues began talking about the issue of animal abuse frequently. I used to say that animal cruelty was like pornography, “you know it when you see it.” But sadly that is not true. The Vick case and various puppy mill cases demonstrate that many people do not know animal cruelty when they see it. In fact, the most frequent questions I am asked center on the treatment of a neighbor’s dog. This article is not meant to be an overview of every state’s animal cruelty laws, but simply an overview of what cruelty toward animals entails in a basic case.

Neglect

To talk about cruelty cases, we have to start with neglect. Neglect is usually a lesser included offense of cruelty involving the duties of care for the animal. Neglect statutes often set minimal “standards of care or adequate care” requirements when caring for an animal. No one has a constitutional right to own an animal. Animals in most states are considered property, but if you decide to own an animal, you have certain duties to it. You can’t just starve or beat an animal to death because you own it. Neglect statutes often contain “shall” language and list certain standards of care that must be maintained. Most relevant statutes outlaw the deprivation of food, water, shelter, or adequate veterinary treatment.

An animal owner’s duties are usually defined. Prime examples are adequate feed and water. Adequate feed usually means that you must provide food that is appropriate for the animal. You can’t feed kitchen scraps alone as a diet for your dog. Your animal must be able to reach the food. If the dog is chained and can’t reach the food, then you are violating the neglect statute. The food can’t have mold growing on it or have pests (larvae and such) infesting it. In many puppy mills, food is often contaminated with maggots and fungi. This is just one example of how puppy mills violate many of the provisions of neglect statutes. Adequate water has to be potable and clean. It can’t have green slime in it, and the animal has to be able to reach it. If a goat or calf can’t reach the bottom of a bucket lined with an inch of water, then the animal does not have adequate water.

Additional provisions deal with adequate shelter. For the shelter of a dog, many states require a clean, solid surface, resting platform, or pad that is large enough for the animal to lie on in a normal manner. Puppy mills are notorious for violating these provisions. In many puppy mill cases, the animals have been warehoused in wire-bottom cages, used because of ease of waste disposal. Many states prohibit wire-bottomed cages; they cause injury to the outer surfaces of dogs’ paws and between the paw pads.

Most provisions mandate that the shelter be properly lighted and that it enables each animal to be clean and dry. Animals can’t be left in feces-encrusted cages or shelters that have excessive amounts of feces and urine. In one case in Virginia, horses were left standing in two feet of feces. Puppy mill dogs live out their lives in dark containers where they suffer urine scalds from lying in their own urine and feces.

Other provisions require shelter to be suitable for the species, age, condition, size, and type of each animal. In one case, a Rottweiler was left in a crate that was two sizes too small for him. He died in that crate. A shelter also must be safe and protect each animal from the elements. A tree is not adequate shelter.

Neglect provisions also mandate adequate space to allow the animal to easily stand, sit, lie, turn about, and make all other normal body movements in a comfortable, normal position. Securing a dog with a chain so short that the animal can’t move freely would violate this provision.

The final mandate of all neglect statutes is for the provision of veterinary care when needed or to prevent suffering or disease transmission. Many neglect or cruelty cases involve animals who suffer because of the withholding of routine medical treatment. If left untreated, a routine infection can linger for months until the animal becomes seriously ill or dies. Often the withholding of veterinary care is what turns a neglect case into a cruelty one.

Cruelty

Cruelty cases are split into two different types. The first type is intentional cruelty. The second type is neglect to the point of cruelty. Recognizing intentional cruelty is a no-brainer. It’s the adolescent torturing the cat or the abusive husband throwing a small dog against the wall to keep his wife in check. Cruelty is any intentional act, such as unnecessarily beating, maiming, or killing an animal. Intentional cruelty is harder to prove because eyewitnesses are harder to come by. Witnesses may decide not to testify because of threats. Often, there are no witnesses to the torture, and other times the abuser has left only a circumstantial trail. Some of the worst abuse cases I have seen are still unsolved. For instance, every Halloween in my jurisdiction there would be a ritualistic killing, a beheading of a dog or a goat, or dead cats marked with pentagrams. In such horrific intentional cases, the abusers were clearly disturbed.

More common are cases involving neglect to the point of cruelty. The cruelty is totally avoidable and usually arises out of ignorance or indifference to suffering. These are the cases that weigh on my psyche. In one typical case, a dog starved to death on a chain in the backyard. The owner just didn’t feed it. During the case, the defense attorney asked me what I would have his client do. That sparked my anger, and I said, “I would have her take the dog to the shelter instead of slowly and painfully starving it to death on the end of a chain.” In this case, the owner had fed her Rottweiler but didn’t feed the other dog. Her defense: It wasn’t her dog. While common, this defense is not credible; most states define an owner to include a custodian or harborer.

Like starvation, deprivation of veterinary care (particularly “emergency” veterinary care) is among the most common types of cruelty cases. The term “emergency veterinary treatment” is defined broadly as veterinary treatment to stabilize a life-threatening condition, alleviate suffering, prevent further disease transmission, or prevent further disease progression. The catchall here is the phrase “alleviate suffering,” which captures a range of behavior.

My very first animal cruelty case was one in which the owner had not sought veterinary care for her dog for a very long time, and the animal had to be euthanized. Maggots had set into a pressure point on the dog’s chest. The vet could testify that the maggots had been in the wound for at least three days, and the dog had been ill for at least two or three weeks. The defense claimed that the dog had eaten and had been running around on the morning of the day that the owner sought treatment for the animal. The state vet, however, determined through his necropsy (animal autopsy) that it was impossible for the dog to have been mobile that morning. Because maggots had erupted on the animal’s dead skin, the wound was analogous to a bed sore; the dog had been down on his chest for days, even weeks. There was also no food in the animal’s stomach. Typical for such cases, the abuser did not seek veterinary care until the animal was in such bad shape that it had to be euthanized. This is the frustrating part of prosecuting these cases: You know that the animal suffered immensely, but the defendant was indifferent to that suffering.

Many dogfighters violate cruelty statutes by injuring their dogs in a dogfight and then not seeking professional treatment for the wounds. Sometimes, dogfighters will treat the animals themselves, using veterinary drugs they keep on-site. They do other medical operations as well, such as docking a dog’s ears. These procedures are frequently botched and performed without anesthesia.

Hoarders fall into their own unique category of animal cruelty. A hoarder is a person who collects or hoards large numbers of animals. Often, they are living in the same filthy environment as their animals. Hoarders start out with the best of intentions, but they go awry. They want to save an animal, then another, then two leads to ten. Hoarders are mentally ill and they need mental health treatment. In many instances, the plea agreement in this type of case hinges on allowing an owner to keep some of the animals. We have learned over the years to let hoarders keep two or three animals so they can have the companionship they seek. But hoarders have to be monitored. Many will get in trouble again if not watched. In many instances, the best result for this type of defendant is to draft a plea agreement restricting their animals and making sure the owners get some mental health treatment. Many judges are reluctant to order the mental health treatment on the prosecutor’s motion but will agree to it in a plea agreement.

It is critical that the hoarder get psychiatric treatment. In one particular case, the hoarder was standing barefoot in inches of feces. Hoarders of animals also will hoard other things, such as newspapers. In one case, the newspapers were stacked, touching the ceiling, with a circular pathway leading to a corral of Cairn Terriers. Hoarders can often be charismatic and manipulative. In one case, the hoarder defendant talked a vet into giving her back one of her dogs.

Animal Fighting

Dogfighting and animal fighting statutes run the gamut, but the trend across the country is for tougher laws outlawing the fighting itself or the gambling on it. Certainly, the publicity surrounding the Michael Vick case has played a role in this trend. What the Vick case brought to light for the average person is the brutality of these events, even after a dog leaves the ring. Fights often last hours—two to three hours is the norm. Dogs fall down, only to have their owners put them back into the ring. Afterward, the losing dogs face beatings or even execution. This is why we say that dogfighting is a death sentence.

Until last year, Virginia had an adequate dogfighting law but allowed cockfighting as long as observers did not gamble on the fight. Today, in the wake of the Vick case (which was prosecuted by the federal authorities), Virginia has one of the best animal fighting laws in the country. The statute is historic because it applies to everyone who goes to an animal fight. Attendance of any kind is now illegal. Organized animal fighting of any kind is illegal, particularly cockfights and dogfights. Gambling on the fight and possessing paraphernalia of animal fighting or training dogs to fight are felonies. Having minors attend or participate in any way is illegal. Enhancing an animal’s ability to fight is illegal.

The Virginia statute criminalizes all the components of an animal fight so that law enforcement can target the heart of an animal fighting ring and act upon any scenario. For instance, suppose police roll up on a dogfight in a backyard and everyone scatters. The police find a bloody basement floor, two torn-up dogs, and other paraphernalia of dogfighting. In this instance, they can charge under the paraphernalia statute. In addition, prosecutors usually try to add collateral charges of animal cruelty in case they can’t prevail on the animal fighting charges. Chances are the perpetrators did not take the animal to the vet to treat fight-related injuries or other conditions demanding veterinary treatment.

How You Can Help

People frequently ask me what they should do if they see animal neglect, animal cruelty, or animal fighting. The short answer is call the local animal control department. If you don’t know that telephone number, call your local law enforcement department and they will direct you. I would urge you to act. There is no reason to sit idly by when an animal is suffering. Most people are good caretakers of their animals, but for those who are not, please take action for the sake of the animal. I am hopeful for the future for animals in our country. The outrage sparked by recent high-profile cases is a good barometer of people’s attitudes toward animals. Animals give so much and ask so little. They deserve to be cared for so they can live well.

K. Michelle Welch is a lawyer with the Office of the Attorney General of the State of Virginia. She may be reached at mwelch@oag.state.va.us.

Copyright 2009

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