Why do anti-cruelty laws protect companion animals more than non-companion animals?

Most jurisdictions punish animal cruelty more severely if the creature harmed is a “companion animal”. Is it justified to afford more legal protection to companion animals than to non-companion animals? Some would argue that it is not. If what makes non human animals worthy of legal protection is that they are capable of feeling pain, distinguishing between companion and non companion animals for legal purposes appears to be unwarranted. The line should be drawn, the argument would go, between sentient and non-sentient animals rather than between companion and companion animals. Therefore, unjustifiably inflicting pain on a sentient animal should be punished in the same manner regardless of whether the creature harmed is a companion or non companion animal.

Although this argument has some appeal, it fails to grasp the complex structure of anti-cruelty offenses. I have argued elsewhere that the chief purpose of anti-cruelty statutes is to protect animals from the unjustifiable infliction of pain. This, of course, does not mean that animal cruelty laws do not seek to further other purposes as well. Statutes that increase punishment when the creature harmed is a companion animal constitute a case in point. In these cases, some of the punishment is imposed solely for harming the animal. However, additional punishment is meted out because conduct in such cases harms typically harms not only the animal, but also those with close emotional ties to the creature. Under New York’s anti-cruelty law, for example, unjustifiably harming an animal can be punished by up to one year of imprisonment. If, however, the creature harmed is a companion animal, the punishment can be increased by up to an additional year of imprisonment.

An analogy might help illustrate this point. The chief purpose of the offense of rape is to protect humans from unjustifiable invasions of their sexual autonomy. This does not mean, however, that the offense of rape does not seek to protect other interests as well. In most jurisdictions, for example, punishment for rape is increased when the sexual act is accomplished by the use of physical force. In such cases, the additional punishment is warranted because the defendant’s act harms (or threatens to harm) not only the victim’s sexual autonomy, but her physical integrity as well.

While one may disagree with the amount of punishment imposed in these cases, it seems entirely legitimate for the state to increase the punishment when the defendant’s conduct harms an additional interest that is worthy of legal protection. In the case of rape, preventing physical harm to the victim is clearly one such interest. By the same token, in the case of anti-cruelty statutes, protecting humans against unjustifiable infliction of emotional harm is an additional interest worthy of legal protection. Therefore, the state should not be faulted for deciding to increase punishment when the defendant’s conduct harms both an animal and a human being.

Luis Chiesa

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One Response

  1. Luis,
    Food for thought, since I have always hated this limitation on NY’s felony cruelty law and never thought of that particular rationale. But your argument would have more sway if there weren’t other factors separating felony cruelty from misdemeanor cruelty, i.e., that the act must be done with the intention of causing extreme physical pain, or with depravity or sadism. Why should these particularly heinous acts only be punished more if they are done to a companion animal? The real reason is so it could get through the Agriculture Committee without unduly upsetting the Farm Bureau.

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