Animal Cruelty May Become a Federal Felony

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

animal cruelty felony charges

Story at-a-glance -

  • Florida Congressmen Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., and Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., paired up on the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act that would make animal cruelty a federal felony
  • The congressmen noted that their bill is “commonsense, bipartisan legislation” that would bring compassion to the present animal laws and make such acts of cruelty a crime
  • Animal cruelty laws enacted on December 9, 2010 have been called “limited in scope,” and didn’t go far enough to ensure the criminals responsible are punished, even in “heinous” circumstances
  • “Crush videos,” which show incidents of animals being tortured or killed, often for the sexual gratification of viewers, began emerging in the 1990s and explain the urgency for the proposed legislation
  • Research reportedly shows that if someone is capable of harming an animal, there’s a “good chance they also are hurting or will hurt a human”

While thousands of people love animals and routinely go the extra mile to protect them and advocate for their well-being, there are some who don't. But for the individuals who maliciously perpetrate cruelty to animals, a new bill has been proposed that will make the punishment for such actions much more severe.

Florida Congressmen Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., and Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., collaborated on the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act that allows authorities the federal jurisdiction to pursue the criminals who commit harmful acts against animals when they cross state lines or if the cruelty takes place on federal property.

Exceptions have been granted in such cases as hunting, killing animals for food, euthanizing animals, scientific research, veterinary care and husbandry. The troubling list the PACT Act covers makes "crushing, burning, drowning, suffocating and impaling animals, and sexually exploiting them" a federal crime. According to Congressman Deutch:

"This is commonsense, bipartisan legislation to bring some compassion to our animal laws. We've acted in the past to stop the horrific trend of animal abuse videos; now it's time to make the underlying acts of cruelty a crime as well."1

In essence, the PACT Act changes that, and would give "teeth" to the already-existing 2010 laws rather than rewriting them. Further, it would "not preempt or interfere with local animal cruelty laws or enforcement. The bill would be a federal overlay, exactly like the federal animal fighting law," the bill proposes.2

Why Change Laws Already in Place?

Part of the reason for the new bill, according to the congressmen, is that the law enacted on December 9, 2010 "is limited in scope," often naming specific acts of cruelty as a crime, but doesn't go far enough to ensure the criminals are punished. Further, the aforementioned acts of cruelty also weren't federal offenses.

A particularly heinous aspect of animal cruelty in the age of social media is that there are even people who record and/or distribute videos or internet-shared depictions of the abuse and killings, including unthinkable acts of violence, for profit. Such was the case in the first individuals prosecuted by the 2010 law, a man sentenced to 50 years in prison, and a woman sentenced to 10 years, for "crush videos" produced in Houston from 2010 to 2012.3

"Crush videos," which began emerging in the 1990s, are one reason the present legislation is being proposed. They show incidents of animals being tortured or killed, often for the sexual gratification of viewers. The Animal Legal Defense Fund explains how part of the new law may do a better job preventing animal cruelty legislatively:

"The Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act banned the creation and distribution of these animal torture videos in 2010. The PACT Act goes a step further and bans the underlying animal cruelty contained in them. Specifically, it prohibits 'animal crushing in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce' regardless of whether the act is for a crush video."4

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Bipartisan Bill Covers Loophole and Speeds Up Prosecution

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS),5 a nonprofit organization founded in 1954 by members of various animal advocate groups and individuals, noted that the bill would close a loophole to the 2010 law, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution6 noted. Those found guilty under the new law would pay fines and spend up to seven years in prison.

The New York Times weighed in, commenting that "Very few issues can bring together lawmakers of both parties. Animal cruelty is one of them."7

In explaining other aspects of why a federal law is critical, Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, the legislative and political arm of the Humane Society, notes that if abused animals are transported across state lines, it complicates the legal processes and speed of the perpetrators' prosecution.

There's also the issue of resources, which is sometimes a challenge for states either lacking the funds or the know-how to carry certain animal cruelty cases forward to successfully nail down a conviction. In addition, law enforcement officials have also noticed that animal abuse can precede other serious crimes, Amundson said.

John Thompson, the executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association, said research shows that if someone is capable of harming an animal, there's a "good chance they also are hurting or will hurt a human. If we can see patterns of animal abuse, the odds are that something else is going on."8

Animal Advocates Ask: Will the PACT Act Pass?

There are more than a few ways cruelty to animals takes place. It's not just to popular pets like dogs and cats, but birds and even an incident where in 2010, a video captured a farm worker in Ohio trapping helpless milking cows for senseless and cruel abuse that included beating and stabbing.

At that time, Ohio's animal cruelty law was the only recourse for prosecution. The worker pled guilty to six misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals and was sentenced to eight months in jail, ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and receive counseling, and barred from having contact with animals for three years. Mercy for Animals, which conducted a special investigation into the Ohio cruelty, wrote:

"Sadly, cruelty to farmed animals in Ohio — no matter how egregious — is classified as a mere misdemeanor. Ohio has some of the weakest animal protection laws in the nation — ranking 43rd out of all 50 states. Further, no federal laws provide protection for farmed animals during their lives on the farm. Such inadequate state laws and the absence of federal laws lead to rampant abuse.

The deplorable conditions uncovered at Conklin Dairy Farms further highlight the reality that animal agriculture cannot be trusted to self-regulate and that meaningful federal and state law must be implemented and strengthened to prevent egregious cruelty to farmed animals."9

Supporters of the PACT Act say the likelihood that it will pass this time is good, and it may help that both the National Sheriffs' Association and the Fraternal Order of Police endorse it, as well as the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, according to the HSUS, along with city, county and state sheriff departments in 38 states as of 2017.10

Buchanan, who is a past recipient of the Humane Society's "Legislator of the Year" award and currently chairs the Animal Protection Caucus in Congress, received an A rating from the Humane Society for those roles in 2018. He tweeted, "The torture of innocent animals is abhorrent and should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. Protecting animals from cruelty is a top priority for me."11