Legalese — Cruelty to Animals

photo courtesy of MorgueFile
photo courtesy of MorgueFile

I’ve always had a soft spot for those who can’t defend themselves.  It is why I have devoted so much of my legal career to children who would otherwise have no voice in the legal system, and why much of my volunteer time is spent at the Boys & Girls Club.  For the same reason, I think all pets should be treated with love and care.  I am, as are most other people, anti-cruelty to animals.  I don’t actually know anyone who is pro-cruelty to animals, thank goodness.

There is legislation defining what Cruelty to Animals is.  Of course, the first thing that has to be done in Legalese is to define the word “Animal.”  For the purposes of the code section, the word animal does not “include any fish…[or]…any pest that might be exterminated or removed from a business, residence, or other structure.”  In other words, you can do what you want to fish, cockroaches, wild mice, or anything else you’d call an exterminator for.

You have committed Cruelty to Animals when you cause “death or unjustifiable physical pain or suffering to any animal by an act, an omission, or willful neglect.”  “Willful neglect” is further defined as “the intentional withholding of food and water required by an animal to prevent starvation or dehydration.”  These offenses are a misdemeanor, with up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.00.

Aggravated Cruelty to Animals occurs if a person “knowingly and maliciously causes death or physical harm to an animal by rendering a part of such animal’s body useless or by seriously disfiguring such animal.”  This is a felony, and would include such things as dog fighting.

But hunting is legal, and a popular sport in this part of the country.  Although I do not hunt myself, I have friends and family who do, and I “hunt” at the supermarket for the choicest cuts of meet.  So I am implicit in the “death or physical harm to an animal.”  Why haven’t I committed Aggravated Cruelty to Animals?  How about a veterinarian who cuts off the leg of a dog to save the dog further suffering or even death?  Why haven’t they committed the crime?  That is because there are quite a few exceptions to this rule.  You haven’t committed this crime if the activity is “otherwise permitted under the laws…including, but not limited to, agricultural, animal husbandry, butchering, food processing, marketing, scientific, research, medical, zoological, exhibition, competitive, hunting, trapping, wildlife management, or pest control practices or the authorized practice of veterinary medicine nor to limit any of the authority or duty of…any law enforcement officer, dog, animal, or rabies control officer, humane society, veterinarian, or private landowner protecting his or her property.”  There, shoved between husbandry and marketing, are the ‘food animal’ exceptions.

As if that were not specific of clear enough, the code goes on further to say that you can harm an animal in order to defend a person or property that is about to be damaged from the animal or that is reasonably believed to be a threat to livestock or poultry.  In other words, if there is an animal – even a pet – getting into the hen house and killing chickens, you can do what you need to do to stop it.  Or if you are going to be hurt by the animal or your property is going to be damaged, you can defend yourself with whatever force you feel is necessary.

And, after all this, in 2009, there was a challenge to this law that it was no good because it was “too vague.”  The Supreme Court said that it was in fact specific enough.  Thank goodness.  I don’t know how many more words could be used for a semi-obvious concept. 

This article was written by a lawyer, but should not be considered legal advice in any way, shape, or form.  It is written for general (and generally vague) informational purposes only.  In order to properly evaluate your case, a lawyer must examine all the facts and circumstances that are particular and personal to your situation.  I have not done that here.


About Lori Duff 352 Articles
Lori is the author of the bestselling collection of humor essays, "Mismatched Shoes and Upside Down Pizza" currently available exclusively on Amazon. In order to finance her writing habit, she is a practicing lawyer with Jones & Duff, LLC. She is married to Mike Duff, who is a retired DeKalb County Public Safety Officer, and has two amazing children who make cameo embarrassing appearances in her blog posts and who attend Walton County Public Schools. Her legal column, "Legalese", is meant to de-mystify and humanize the Court system. When asked about her writing, Lori says, "Life is too short not to laugh at every available opportunity. My goal is to make myself laugh -- and hopefully you will laugh along with me."

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