Animal cruelty laws are ineffective and outdated, advocates say
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Animal cruelty laws are ineffective and outdated, advocates say

FROM Jordan Fenster,
February 1, 2018

Animals took over our social media feeds this year! TC Newman (@PurpleTCNewman) takes you through some of the top animal stories of 2017. Buzz60

The stories are difficult to hear — dogs beaten and stabbed, or left out to die in the cold — but animal abusers are literally getting away with murder, advocates say, with New York state law an ineffective deterrent and feeble punishment.

Animal abuse and cruelty laws are hidden away in an obscure section of New York’s legal framework, according to animal law experts, making enforcement and prosecution difficult prospects.

“The laws, you just get a tap on the wrist and nothing happens,” said Kay Pistone Carucci, president of animal advocacy organization Building Hope and of the New Yonkers Animal Shelter. “The laws have to be critical enough to make a difference.”

Most animal abuse in New York state is a misdemeanor, punishable by a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. There is also felony animal abuse, called aggravated cruelty to animals, punishable by two years in prison and $1,000 fine.

When misdemeanor animal abuse becomes felony animal cruelty is largely a matter of police and prosecutorial discretion, as attorney Delcianna Winders explained.

"It becomes aggravated cruelty when an action is “intended to cause extreme pain,” Winders said. “It is quite difficult to determine what exactly is meant by that. It comes down to intent.”

Winders, an attorney with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, recently began a stint at Pace Law School, as a Haub Visiting Scholar specializing in animal law.

“There is a huge reluctance to enforce animal cases,” she said. “Especially when you consider how low the penalties are.”

Last year, for example, a Yonkers man was charged with misdemeanor animal abuse after he allegedly stabbed an 8-month-old pit bull in the back. Neighbors called officials and the dog made a full recovery.

In January, another Yonkers resident allegedly threw his pit bull down a flight of stairs and was charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty.

According to Ernest Lungaro, director of humane law enforcement for the Westchester County SPCA, it’s not as much about prosecutorial discretion as it is getting convictions.

Lungaro, for 20 years, was a New York City police officer. Now he’s one of a few SPCA employees in the state, working directly with county officials to find, arrest and prosecute animal abusers.

“We put the strongest case possible together,” he said. “When we go forward with it, it really is very, very strong cases.”
Lost in obscurity

New York state passed its first law governing animal abuse in 1829 and, according to Winders, not much has changed since then.

“Fundamentally, it’s still very similar. There have been additions, moves to make certain crimes felonies,” she said. “But at the core the laws have remained very similar.”

Animal-abuse statutes are contained within the state’s Agriculture and Markets Law, meaning animal abuse, neglect and cruelty are not in the state’s criminal code. That affects how the law is applied both in the community and in court.

“We have to go by how the laws are written,” Lungaro said. “The way the laws are written, an animal is considered to be property.”

With animal abuse part of the state’s Agriculture and Markets statute, on a practical level that means police are not as acquainted with the legal nuances.

“There’s been a lot of talk about moving some of them into New York state penal law,” Lungaro said. “Law enforcement all over the state would have easy access to it.”

Carucci and other advocates are hoping a bit of education will go a long way: She and some fellow passionate residents have invited Putnam County Humane Law Enforcement Officer Ken Ross, state Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers, state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, and Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano to an information session.

“The goal, number one, is informational,” she said. “I think the law has to be parallel to the abuse.”
State-to-state differences

Each year, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an advocacy organization, ranks states based on animal laws, tracking those that pass new laws designed to protect animals.

“Sadly, many cruelty cases go undetected, hidden from public view, and veterinarians
might be the only witnesses to these animals’ suffering," said Lora Dunn, director and senior staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s criminal justice program.

New York ranked 42 out of 55 U.S. states and territories on the organization’s 2017 list.

“They’re not the strongest in the country,” Lungaro said.

That being said, there have been some improvements over time.

Last year, New York state banned elephants from circuses. In 2014, a statewide ban on so-called “tiger selfies” was signed into law.

If a person is convicted of promoting animal fighting, a felony, they may be subject to four years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

And New York is one of a small number of states that attempt to keep a convicted animal abuser from owning animals.

“As to bans on future possession following a cruelty conviction, New York is one of about 14 states that expressly provide for this in their laws, while in other states it is something the prosecutor can ask the judge to do at his or her discretion,” Winders said, though keeping track of what animals a convicted abuser owns is nearly impossible. “Even when such bans are put in place, enforcement can be difficult, especially where there is no probation oversight.”

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