When Goldfish Are “Animals” – Domestic Violence and Animal Cruelty

On January 30, 2004, among other charges, Michael Garcia was convicted of felony animal cruelty for having stomped a child’s goldfish to death in the midst of a domestic rage.

…Indeed, the actions defendant took against the goldfish in this case speak to defendant’s understanding that he was killing a companion animal… Defendant then made a point of summoning Juan into the room to witness defendant’s sadistic and depraved act of destroying a family pet. After piquing the boy’s interest and gaining his attention, and in full view of …his mother, defendant then killed the goldfish under his shoe. These actions clearly evince defendant’s understanding and intention of inflicting emotional pain on both the boy and his mother. Indeed, defendant’s killing of Junior, the fish, under these circumstances could only have been undertaken for the purpose of destroying a creature the boy held dear, namely, his pet…

New York County Supreme Court, March 2004

In the Garcia case, the prosecutor’s ability to file animal cruelty charges hinged in part on how New York defines “animal” within its anti-cruelty statutes. Almost all states incorporate such definitions into their animal protection laws – New York’s reads:

N.Y. AGRIC.&MKTS. LAW § 350 (2009). Definitions.

1. Animal, as used in this article, includes every living creature except a human being;

5. Companion animal or pet means any dog or cat, and shall also mean any other domesticated animal normally maintained in or near the household of the owner or person who cares for such other domesticated animal. Pet or companion animal shall not include a farm animal as defined in this section.

While these goldfish victims had the media presenting the Garcia conviction in their “strange news” sections, the domestic violence which the case revealed was sadly not unusual at all. There is much documentation on the link between cruelty to animals and violence toward humans, with a large portion of these investigations centering on domestic violence. Abusers often threaten and carry out acts of animal cruelty, taking advantage of their human victim’s bond with their animal(s) as a means of intimidation and control. It is not unusual for women to cite fear for the safety of their animals as a reason for not leaving their abusers by entering a shelter. In a 2007 study, for example: “The vast majority of shelter women described being emotionally close to their pets and distraught by the abuse family pets experienced.” Legislation models which seek to ameliorate the statistics reflected in these studies include protective orders for companion animals, cross-reporting requirements, and enhancement provisions for animal abuse committed in the presence of minors.

While fish and the myriad of ways they tie to human culture remain largely invisible to many, the three small goldfish in the Garcia case are a reminder that for a community to effectively address interpersonal violence, it must have tools which allow it to focus on the conduct of the abusers and not be distracted by the social status of the victims.

Animal Cruelty’s Link to Other Forms of Community Violence (PDF)
Working With Legislators
Get Political for Animals and Win the Laws They Need by Julie Lewin
Poster: “Battered Women Share Their Homes With Battered Animals” (PDF)

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