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August 08, 2017 Articles

Purposefully Protecting Pets

Maryland's final protective order does not protect pets from injury, threats, or death.

By Farrah Champagne – August 8, 2017

There is a strong link between domestic violence and animal abuse. Domestic violence perpetrators often abuse family pets as a means of controlling their human victims.

In an aim to protect our furry friends, Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland recently signed several bills that aim to tighten protections for animals against abuse. These regulations, if violated, can lead to criminal penalties. Under Maryland’s Criminal Law Code, a perpetrator can be charged with a felony and face up to three years of incarceration and/or a $5,000 fine for intentionally mutilating, torturing, beating, or inflicting death upon an animal. Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 10-606.

The criminal penalties for animal abuse in Maryland are severe, yet there are no provisions for the protection of pets from abuse in final protective orders in Maryland, which give way to criminal penalties if violated. Maryland’s final protective order relating to protection of pets currently provides for the award of temporary possession of a companion animal, but, unfortunately, it does not mention a pet’s entitlement to relief from abuse. Md. Code Ann., Fam. Law § 4-506(d)(13). The final protective order issued under the Annotated Code of Maryland should include provisions that prohibit access to and abuse of companion animals (the term companion animal will be used interchangeably with the terms pet, family pet, and animal).

Connection Between Domestic Violence and Pet Abuse
Frank Ascione, in his article “Children Who Are Cruel to Animals: A Review of Research and Implications for Developmental Psychopathology,” discussed his research about the connection between domestic violence and pet abuse. He described animal abuse as “socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or death of an animal.” Pets are often viewed as family members, and people who commit acts of domestic violence not only abuse family members and the elderly but also are likely to abuse pets.

Abusers harm family animals to demonstrate power, encourage submission, isolate the victim, express rage about the actions of the family members, perpetuate terror, punish and terrorize the family, force the victim to abuse the pet, and confirm power. Id.

The Colorado Springs Domestic Violence Response Team (DVERT), which served families throughout Colorado, recorded examples of animal abuse. These acts included instances where the abuser would (1) kick the animal, (2) throw the animal across the room or into a wall or other object, (3) shoot the animal with a BB gun, (4) shoot the animal with a shotgun and force the human victim to watch, (5) break the animal’s legs or neck, (6) hang the family pet, (7) cut the animal’s tail or burn it, (8) threaten to kill and cook the pet rabbit, (9) participate in the mysterious disappearance of pets, (10) overfeed fish, and (11) create difficult breathing environments for asthmatics by bringing in high-dander pets.

Effect of Pet Abuse on Children
Pet abuse can have several different—all negative—effects on children.

Children who witness animal abuse may try to protect their pets. Janet Mickish and Kathleen Schoen, in their articleProtection Orders and Animal Abuse in Family Violence,” argue that the situation is dangerous when children attempt to protect companion animals from domestic abuse because there is a direct correlation between pet abuse and child abuse.

Domestic violence perpetrators use pet abuse to gain power and control over the family, not caring about the fact that children who witness pet abuse suffer long-term negative psychological effects. The negative effects include children feeling a sense of hopelessness and despair as they watch their pets being terrorized.

When encountering domestic violence cases, legal professionals should inquire about whether the children in the family have witnessed animal abuse and whether the children need counseling. Receiving support from the legal system and from counselors can help children heal from the effects of witnessing pet abuse.

Need for Amendment to Maryland’s Annotated Code Section 4-506(d)
Maryland’s Annotated Code, Family Law section 4-506(d), contains the contents that can be included in a final protective order. Maryland state legislators need to amend this section to provide for protection of companion pets in final protective orders.

The code as it currently exists in Maryland does not adequately address the safety and well-being of family pets. Although Maryland’s final protective order provides for temporary possession of a pet to the petitioner, there is no provision for protection of the pets from injury, threats, or death. The statute states that the court may “award temporary possession of any pet of the person eligible for relief or the respondent.” Md. Code Ann., Fam. Law § 4-506(d)(13). No clear direction has been provided, however, regarding the status of household pets that have been abused.

To ensure the safety of family pets, Maryland should amend the code to include a 15th provision in section 4-506(d) as follows: “order the respondent to refrain from abusing or threatening to abuse any companion animal eligible for relief.”

In addition, the statute should be amended by the addition of a subsection that provides thus: “Return of companion animal: If the judge awards temporary possession of a companion animal under subsection (d)(13) of this section, the judge may order a law enforcement officer to use all reasonable and necessary force to return the companion animal to the rightful owner after service of the final protective order.”

An additional consideration is that the definition of the term companion animal is broad. This raises concerns about the application of the term to small pets like birds and reptiles as well as larger pets such as livestock and horses. Thus, as Dianna Gentry argued in “Including Companion Animals in Protective Orders: Curtailing the Reach of Domestic Violence,” it is imperative to create a precise definition of the term companion animal for the purpose of ensuring that all animals providing companionship to owners are protected.

Animal cruelty is an extension of domestic violence that has been inadequately addressed by the domestic violence statute. Pet abuse is prevalent in homes where domestic violence occurs, and perpetrators of animal abuse face serious criminal consequences if convicted. To strengthen the criminal justice system, though, the state of Maryland should add provisions to the final protective order statute for the protection of pets from abuse.

When encountering domestic violence cases, attorneys, judges, and advocates should inquire about whether the family has animals that have suffered abuse and need protection. If there has been animal abuse, the professional can speak to the victim about a means of protection for the animal. This will provide victims of domestic violence with a feeling of safety for all family members—including the furry ones.

Farrah Champagne is an editor of the Criminal Litigation newsletter, practices domestic violence law, and is a court-appointed attorney for the District Court of Maryland.