Legally Brief: Felony Laws are a Victory for AnimalsPosted by Stephen Wells, ALDF Executive Director on March 27, 2014
We’ve had some great news for animals recently: Canada has agreed to phase out gestation crates and Kentucky has banned veal crates. Animal advocates have also defeated 3 out of 4 ag gag bills so far this year, helped stop horse-slaughter on US soil, and Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York and other cities banned the sale of puppy mill puppies in pet stores. And just this month, South Dakota became the 50th state to pass a felony anti-cruelty law.
This is great news for animals: without felony penalties for animal cruelty, no matter how egregious or repeated the animal abuse crime, it can only be treated like a minor infraction. When I joined the Animal Legal Defense Fund 15 years ago, getting all states on the felony anti-cruelty map was a major goal. At that time, only about thirty states had these provisions. In fact, ALDF created the annual state rankings report in 2006 to shed light on such deficiencies. Since then, most states have made significant improvement in their animal protection laws, many with ALDF help—and now, finally, all states have felony penalties for animal cruelty.
Felony penalties play a crucial role in the criminal justice system when it comes to fighting animal abuse. Just this week, a Brooklyn man received a one-year jail term for felony animal cruelty after he set a cat named Michael on fire. ALDF’s reward offer helped lead to a conviction in this sad but all too common case. That is why we are thrilled that all states now have felony penalties.
But there is still more work to be done. In recent years, South Dakota has been at the very bottom of ALDF’s annual state rankings—47th in 2012 and 48th in 2013—making it one of the “best” states to be an animal abuser. At the time of our 2013 annual report, South Dakota had no felony provision for animal cruelty, neglect, or abandonment, lacked increased penalties when animal abuse is committed in front of children, and had no requirements for mental health counseling or requirements for veterinarians to report suspected abuse.
Media reports spread the news of South Dakota’s dismal rank in ALDF’s annual rankings and this helped spur the passage of the felony penalty. In many ways, it demonstrates how state legislatures across the country have begun to enact laws that reflect the humane values of the American electorate. Several jurisdictions, like Washington, Oregon, and Puerto Rico, have adopted legal provisions written by ALDF. Our model laws continue to be a resource and encourage further improvements in each state.
ALDF’s state rankings show that legislative weaknesses in the bottom-tiered states include inadequate standards of basic care for animals, limited authority given to humane officers, and a lack of mandatory reporting when veterinarians suspect animal cruelty. On the other hand, states who top the charts with stiff animal protection laws, including Illinois, Oregon, Michigan, Maine, and California, demonstrate commitment to combating animal cruelty. The report analyzes more than 4,000 pages of statutes, tracks fifteen broad categories of provisions, and reveals the states where animal law is most effective, and the states where abusers get off easy.
Enacting felony provisions is a huge step forward for South Dakota, and we welcome them into the fold. To help states improve their laws, the Animal Legal Defense Fund provides assistance to local animal protection organizations seeking to improve state laws—and our report is the longest-running and most authoritative of its kind. Check out ALDF’s state rankings report to see how your state fares in animal protection laws, where it can improve, and what you can do to help make these changes happen.