Stand Up Against Animal Abuse

Michael Vick's guilty plea August 27, 2007 on charges related to dog fighting has focused the country's attention on animal cruelty, and dog fighting in particular. In July, federal prosecutors alleged that the Atlanta Falcons quarterback bought and sponsored dogs for the purpose of dog fighting, traveled across state lines to engage in illegal activities, including gambling, and helped kill several dogs that didn't pass muster as fighters.

There are many types of animal abuse. Animals can be abused anywhere from homes to farms, from pet stores to circuses. The Vick indictment has brought new attention to dog fighting, but other types of animals--most notably gamecocks--are also used for fighting. In addition to fighting, animal abuse can also include:

  • Neglecting an animal by locking them in a car during hot weather, or leaving them in other locations without food, water or shelter
  • Abandoning a pet
  • Maliciously hurting, torturing, maiming or killing an animal
  • Hording animals
  • Failing to provide medical care to sick or injured animals that one owns

Because animals are largely silent victims, who can't reach out to authorities themselves, law-enforcement officials must often rely on witness such as friends and neighbors to bring cruelty, abuse and neglect to their attention.

If in doubt about whether particular behavior constitutes abuse, it's better to err on the side of caution and report the suspected abuse to officials. They will investigate the claims, and decide whether a crime has occurred.

From state-to-state, jurisdiction over abused animals will vary. You can contact your local police, animal control, humane society or animal shelter to learn which authorities are responsible for enforcing anti-cruelty laws in your area. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a page on it's website that details who in each state has the power to investigate allegations of animal cruelty, and who has the power to made arrests. It also includes the excerpts of relevant state animal-abuse laws. You may want to provide to this information to law-enforcement officials if they are unsure of whether they have the responsible for dealing with animal abuse.

Before contacting law-enforcement officials, if the circumstances permit you should compile some basic information to help authorities understand the nature of the abuse. Write down any relevant details, including the address where the alleged abuse occurred; what type of abuse you witnessed; who was present and participated in or observed the abuse (provide a physical description if you don't know people's names); and the date or dates on which the abuse occurred. Photographs or videos of the abuse in progress are also helpful if they can be taken without risking your own safety. Make a copy of all documents, photos and videos, so you can supply one set to the authorities and keep another copy for your own records.

Most people's first instinct will be to report abuse anonymously. Understand, however, that if the abuse case is serious enough to go to trial, prosecutors may want you to testify, based on abuse you actually witnessed, to help prove that a crime was committed. Because defendants in U.S. criminal courts have a right to face their accusers, you would not be permitted to testify anonymously. Ultimately, however, the welfare and safety of the animals is paramount. It is better to report abuse anonymously than to not report abuse at all.

In many instances, animal owners are unintentionally neglecting their pets, not deliberately abusing them. In these cases, the law-enforcement officer will often work to educate pet owners about the humane treatment of their animals. The officer may issue a ticket and will later revisit the animal's owner to ensure that previous problems have been corrected. If officer thinks the neglect or abuse is severe or life-threatening--or if an owner hasn't corrected previous problems--then the animals may immediately be removed from their owners. In these instances, the law-enforcement authorities will probably contract prosecutors, who will determine whether the owners should be charged with a crime.

Penalties for animal abuse vary. Animal abusers who are found guilty of misdemeanor abuse charges may have their animals taken away from them, and may be required to perform community service, pay a fine or undergo counseling. As of June 2007, 43 states have made certain types of animal cruelty a felony-level crime, and dog fighting is illegal in all 50 states. Individuals who are found guilty of a felony, which is the most serious category of crimes, can face punishments ranging from probation to jail time.


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