Whenever we hear about a person being cruel to an animal, we are stunned.
We can’t imagine why someone would fail to feed and care for a helpless pet.
What we see most often are situations where cats or dogs are removed from a home because they are sick and starving or horses are living without veterinary care or proper food.
Often, in these cases, there are so many animals that we wonder how the owners imagined they could afford to care for them.
Sometimes, there are mental-health issues or there’s a good-hearted wish to rescue the animals but the inability to do so as the numbers grow.
Experts are paying more attention to animal “hoarding,” which is typified by a person having many animals without the ability to provide basic care and a lack of recognition that they are neglecting them.
I saw all of these kinds of cases, as well as others where pets were left alone for days without food and water.
If this happened in an apartment building, they typically were discovered by neighbors complaining to the police about a foul odor or constant barking.
Less often, there are cases of physical abuse, where the owner beats or tortures the animal.
This can be from cruelty, to “discipline” the animal or to have that mistreatment be a vivid warning to the humans in the household of what the abuser can do to them.
There are real challenges in effectively prosecuting animal cruelty in New York.
Most crimes against animals are misdemeanors under the Agriculture and Markets Law. Much of the language was written in 1867 and has been referred to as “‘antiquated,” with “vague definitions and concepts.”
The law was groundbreaking at the time and was primarily concerned with the conditions under which horses and livestock worked, were housed, transported and slaughtered.
The basic statute says that it is a misdemeanor when a person “overdrives, overloads, tortures or cruelly beats or unjustifiably injures, maims, mutilates or kills any animal ... or deprives any animal of necessary sustenance, food or drink, or neglects or refuses to furnish it such sustenance or drink ...”
These terms may have provided adequate protection for animals 146 years ago, but they fall short in today’s world.
Not all animal beatings are against the law; only those that are done “cruelly,” a term that is not defined. If an animal is injured, maimed, mutilated or killed, the prosecution must prove that it was “unjustifiable.”
Even more challenging is the meaning of “sustenance,” which is undefined but listed as separate from food and drink. Some courts have found that it includes veterinary care, but others differ.
In 1999, a felony of aggravated cruelty to animals was enacted in New York for the protection of “companion animals,” or pets.
This felony is committed when a person “intentionally kills or intentionally causes serious physical injury to a companion animal with aggravated cruelty.”
That is conduct that “is intended to cause extreme physical pain or is done or carried out in an especially depraved or sadistic manner.”
Neglect does not qualify — nor does intentional killing that is not done with “aggravated cruelty” or mistreatment of a wild or farm animal.
There is a bill pending in the State Legislature to modernize and make more effective laws against animal cruelty, including expanding them to cover all animals.
It also makes clear that animals must be provided with “nutrition, hydration, veterinary care and shelter adequate to maintain the animal’s health and comfort” and expands the options for placing animals, as well as the sentences that a court can impose.
Penny Clute has been an attorney since 1973. She was the Clinton County district attorney from 1989 through 2001, then Plattsburgh City Court judge until she retired in January 2012.
TO LEARN MORE
New York State Humane Society: www.nyshumane.org American Society for Protection against Cruelty to Animals: www.aspca.org/fight-cruelty