Iowa Pig Abuse Case: Will Punishment Fit the Crime?

Posted on September 19, 2008

Do you think that criminal animal abusers deserve punishments that fit their crimes? A shocking case of cruelty that made headlines across the country this week shows just how far the law lags in serving true justice to even the most vicious animal abusers. ALDF offers a case study analysis on the criminal laws in Iowa, where the abuse of pigs on a farm supplying Hormel has raised a national outrage.

Earlier this week, the release of an undercover video showing acts of vicious cruelty to pigs at an Iowa farm made headlines across the nation. The investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals revealed farm workers beating sows with metal rods, spray painting them in the face, and slamming piglets onto the ground and tossing them, still wiggling, into a bloody pile. But what kind of criminal charges face the violent abusers caught on video at the farm that supplies pigs for Hormel? The case highlights the failure of the law to provide for just punishment for those caught in even the most vicious acts of animal abuse–and the urgent need for reform in laws protecting farmed animals.

In Iowa, as in many states, the general animal anti-cruelty laws exempt “livestock” from the definition of animals falling within the protections of the code. Though they are as intelligent as dogs, pigs are classified as “livestock,” and so the general animal cruelty code does not even apply to them. The laws left to protect pigs, then, are those categorized as “abuse of livestock” crimes–there are two:

ICS § 717.1A  Livestock abuse.

A person is guilty of livestock abuse if the person intentionally injures or destroys livestock owned by another person, in any manner, including, but not limited to, intentionally doing any of the following:  administering drugs or poisons to the livestock, or disabling the livestock by using a firearm or trap. A person guilty of livestock abuse commits an aggravated misdemeanor. This section shall not apply to any of the following:

1.  A person acting with the consent of the person owning the livestock, unless the action constitutes livestock neglect as provided in section 717.2.

2.  A person acting to carry out an order issued by a court.

3.  A licensed veterinarian practicing veterinary medicine as provided in chapter 169.

4.  A person acting in order to carry out another provision of law which allows the conduct.

5.  A person reasonably acting to protect the person’s property from damage caused by estray livestock.

6.  A person reasonably acting to protect a person from injury or death caused by estray livestock.

7.  An institution, as defined in section 145B.1, or a research facility, as defined in section 162.2, provided that the institution or research facility performs functions within the scope of accepted practices and disciplines associated with the institution or research facility.

This offense, with its startling number of exceptions, is an “aggravated misdemeanor,” and the maximum penalty it allows for is two years of jail and a fine of not less than $625 and not more than $6,250.  ICA § 903.1.  The fact that this statute limits its application to livestock owned by another person is troubling for obvious reasons in the case of farmed animals, and a potential issue in this particular case, given that it was agents of the owners of the pigs who engaged in their abuse. 

The second law left to offer some justice for these pigs is “Livestock neglect,” which reads:

ICA § 717.2  Livestock neglect.

1.  A person who impounds or confines livestock, in any place, and does any of the following commits the offense of livestock neglect:

a.  Fails to provide livestock with care consistent with customary animal husbandry practices.

b.  Deprives livestock of necessary sustenance.

c.  Injures or destroys livestock by any means which causes pain or suffering in a manner inconsistent with customary animal husbandry practices.

2.  A person who commits the offense of livestock neglect is guilty of a simple misdemeanor. A person who intentionally commits the offense of livestock neglect which results in serious injury to or the death of livestock is guilty of a serious misdemeanor. However, a person shall not be guilty of more than one offense of livestock neglect punishable as a serious misdemeanor, when care or sustenance is not provided to multiple head of livestock during any period of uninterrupted neglect.

3.  This section does not apply to an institution, as defined in section 145B.1, or a research facility, as defined in section 162.2, provided that the institution or research facility performs functions within the scope of accepted practices and disciplines associated with the institution or research facility.

Simple and serious misdemeanors carry the following maximum penalties, respectively: 30-days jail and a fine of no less than $65 and not more than $625 and 1-year jail and a fine of no less than $350 and not more than $1,800.

Even these maximum penalties seem like little more than a slap on the wrist of a violent criminal hitting a sow with a metal rod while saying “These [expletives] deserve to be hurt. Hurt, I say! Hurt! Hurt! Hurt! Hurt! … Take out your frustrations on ’em." However, the criminal justice experts at the Animal Legal Defense Fund have seen too often how the statutory maximum sentences are seldom imposed, and, when they are actually imposed, there are many ways for courts to cut the actual time served.  For example, under ICA § 903.3, the court can order an offender into work release, rather than serving 24 hours a day in custody.  Additionally, in Chapter 903A, offenders get a credit for time served prior to sentencing, plus they get the “earned time” deduction of up to 17% off the gross term. Such provisions are sadly all too common when states want to talk tough on crime, but don’t really want to pay for the actual cost of executing the sentence.

In the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s most recent State Animal Protection Laws Rankings report, Iowa ranked in the bottom tier of states when it came to the ability its laws to provide true protections for animals. Will there be real justice for the pigs abused on this Iowa farm? We hope that prosecutors will use the full strength of the law to punish the abusers and show that animal abuse is a crime that is taken very seriously. However, it’s clear that there is a long way to go in getting the laws to reflect what most compassionate members of society believe to be true–that abusing animals is wrong, and it must not be tolerated.

Take Action!
Currently, both Iowa and federal law are severely lacking when it comes to protecting animals on farms from abuse. However, landmark changes could be made at the federal level with HR 6202, the federal Farm Animal Anti-Cruelty Act. Learn how you can support this groundbreaking federal legislation today. As for Iowa ‘s code–stay tuned for updates, as this investigation will likely weaken the factory farm lobby’s current position. Meanwhile, ALDF will be working hard to amend Iowa’s criminal code.

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