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Animal Neglect and Cruelty

Posted by E. W. Childers | Oct 11, 2019 | 0 Comments

When we keep animals for our benefit, whether for companionship, comfort, or business, the law maintains that while the animals are our property, we also owe them duties of care and safeguarding; that is we cannot unduly harm them or abuse them. This may seem contradictory since in the ordinary course of business we are also allowed to raise them for slaughter. I agree that this is contradictory and, as with all laws that try to enforce a line of good conduct in the midst of tension, it inevitably leads to arbitrary enforcement. When a complaint about animal abuse or neglect is made the law enforcement agency and the prosecutor have to decide if the conduct complained of rises to the level of criminal abuse and if so, whether the abuse amounts to a misdemeanor or a felony.

Following is the animal neglect and cruelty statute, 21 O.S. §1685:

Any person who shall willfully or maliciously torture, destroy or kill, or cruelly beat or injure, maim or mutilate any animal in subjugation or captivity, whether wild or tame, and whether belonging to the person or to another, or deprive any such animal of necessary food, drink, shelter, or veterinary care to prevent suffering; or who shall cause, procure or permit any such animal to be so tortured, destroyed or killed, or cruelly beaten or injured, maimed or mutilated, or deprived of necessary food, drink, shelter, or veterinary care to prevent suffering; or who shall willfully set on foot, instigate, engage in, or in any way further any act of cruelty to any animal, or any act tending to produce such cruelty, shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by imprisonment in the State Penitentiary not exceeding five (5) years, or by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one (1) year, or by a fine not exceeding Five Thousand Dollars ($5,000.00). Any animal so maltreated or abused shall be considered an abused or neglected animal.

Animal Cruelty

The line, I believe, is easier to draw for animal cruelty as opposed to animal neglect and the statute does a fair job in more clearly describing and proscribing offending conduct in a way that is relatively easy for law enforcement and prosecutors to reasonably decide whether any particular conduct amounts to a violation of the law, although the distinction between a felony violation and misdemeanor violation is, I believe, unconscionably vague. The statute first requires willfulness or maliciousness which rules out accidents like hitting a dog or deer with your car (you'd pretty much need to be chasing them around in your car for a collision to count as animal cruelty). But it seems to make clear that killing, mutilating, or injuring an animal that is in captivity is prohibited.

However Equine and Poultry Slaughter Operations are Still Permitted

In accordance with 2 O.S. §6-183 which follows in relevant part:

C. Either of the following two methods of slaughtering livestock and handling livestock in connection with slaughter are hereby found to be humane:

1. In the case of cattle, bison, sheep, swine, goats, horses, mules or other equines, the animals are rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast or cut; or

2. By slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith or any other religious faith that prescribes a method of slaughter whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument and handling in connection with such slaughtering.

Essentially, traditional food operations are obviously permitted. Larger animals are required to be slaughtered in a specific manner (i.e. humanely by being stunned before being killed.) Kosher operations are allowed to operate according to kosher rules. There don't appear to be any rules for poultry except possibly when slaughtered in a kosher manner. I have not seen any prosecutions regarding the manner of slaughter though in any commercial operation.

Animal Neglect

Sometimes, for various reasons, the proper care and safeguarding of animals is not accomplished. I find that generally, even simple neglect of animals, though it can be charged as a misdemeanor in Oklahoma, is filed as a felony. I also find that most animal neglect and cruelty charges are the result of mental illness in the accused which can often be successfully remedied and is always worth doing.

Neglect is the more troublesome basis for a animal cruelty charge because neglect often occurs due to some sort of stressor on the owner with the result that they either act inappropriately (for instance delaying necessary veterinary care due to a lack of money and then being afraid to take the animal even when money becomes available since veterinarians are mandatory reporters of suspected animal abuse) or, not knowing just what to do or being paralyzed as to what decision to make, fail to make any decision at all resulting in animal starvation (for instance).

Small Ranching Operations and Animal Neglect

Farming and Ranching are financially and physically difficult businesses for smaller, traditional operators. A common pattern in Oklahoma is for a person who owns several horses to be suddenly unable to continue caring for them. All it takes is sickness or bankruptcy followed by inaction for such an operator to end up with an Animal Cruelty charge (usually one for each larger animal, such as a cow or a horse) based on the neglect portions of the statute. It is not uncommon for a person owning several horses to get physically sick, mentally ill, or financially compromised with the result that the horses are starved. Eventually the matter comes to the attention of police and the owner is prosecuted for animal cruelty for failure to care for the animals adequately. 

Misdemeanor Charges?

Because of the wide variety of situations and ideas about what constitutes the proper care of animals, prosecutors will not usually bring these charges unless the physical evidence is overwhelming and the public is likely to be outraged upon hearing about or seeing pictures of the conditions of the animals involved. Unlike a case involving people as victims, animals cannot testify as to their condition, they can only be physically examined. Photographic evidence is the most common evidence besides the testimony of police or animal control officers. The results is that these cases usually, when filed, are extremely difficult to defend. As in a child abuse case the prosecutor is not incentivised to ever initially file an animal cruelty case as a misdemeanor.

Obtaining a misdemeanor amended charge will be the result of one either

  • negotiating with the DA, or;
  • taking the case to trial where the jury can decide what's a misdemeanor and what's not.
 

About the Author

E. W. Childers

I am a husband, father, Army veteran, and attorney here in Norman, Oklahoma. I've been practicing law throughout Central Oklahoma since 2006 shortly after I graduated from the OU College of Law. In my practice I have emphasized Family Law, Criminal Defense, and Personal Injury. I like to help peo...

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