What Kind of Punishments Should Animal Abusers Get?

An eye for an eye or a slap on the wrist?

What should happen to human monsters when they harm animal angels? (Photo: Desmond Boylan/Reuters)
wrote the bestseller Soldier Dogs and was staff writer at USA Today and the San Francisco Chronicle.

You’d think writing about dogs on a regular basis would be one big bunch of wags, right? And it can be one of the best jobs on the planet. But some days it just makes me want to throw in the towel and write about physics or power tools or solar panels—anything that can’t experience horrendous cruelty.

Yesterday was one of those days. My usual Google search for dog news was plagued by one horrendous story after another. Here’s a sampling of the headlines on just the first page of dog news:

Salinas boy arrested for hanging dog The Los Angeles Times wrote about a 12-year-old boy who hanged a 12-pound terrier mix because he was mad at the dog. He showed utterly no remorse, police say.

Florida woman attacks dog with knife ‘to see what it felt like’ – A 22-year-old woman was reported by Examiner.com to have viciously knifed her 10-year-old Labrador retriever six times with no other explanation than she wanted to see what it felt like. The dog is barely clinging to life.

Starving dog dumped in Dallas with coffee can around neck – The dog's head and neck extended all the way through the open-ended can, and her body tissue was growing around it. The can was also cutting into her head and chest. It’s certain some heinous creep did this to her on purpose. “This was absolute and pure agony every time she moved, and even lying as quietly as she could, she was in agonizing pain,” her rescuers stated in an article in the Dallas News.

During my years as news editor at Dogster, the dog-related news was often so grim that I tried finding an online filter for the really bad stuff so I could face the headlines every day. But no matter what terms I typed in to ignore (drowning, beating, stabbing), a new crime always sneaked through (hanging, raping, skinning alive). I gave up.

In the end, it was just as well, because there were stories that were better off being aired in public so readers could donate to the dog, or create an outcry that would lead to some kind of change.

This week's relatively large number of stories about heinous acts against dogs got me thinking about the punishment for such crimes. (I don’t know the psychological ills and evils that may lead to such abominable cruelty. And frankly, I don’t have a lot of empathy for excuses when a dog is scrambling around frightened to death after his eyes have been poked out or his head bludgeoned.)

More states than ever now have felony laws against animal cruelty. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, only Idaho, New Jersey (?!), and North Dakota don’t. It’s a very good step toward recognizing that animals are more than simply property—although that’s still their designation in most places.

But even the best-intentioned laws just don’t have the teeth they would if these acts were committed against a person. Take that Florida woman who fiercely stabbed her dog to see what it was like. She could possibly see a little jail time. At most, she’d probably get a year. Sadly, she could well just get off with a slap on the wrist and some mandatory psychological counseling. If she’d done this to a person, it would probably be a very long time before she came out from behind bars.

When I wrote the column about poaching gorillas a couple of weeks ago, many irate readers wrote in suggesting an eye-for-an-eye punishment to help prevent such killings. Obviously that’s not going to happen here or in Africa. But I can understand the gut appeal.

So what to do about the people who commit these crimes against companion animals?

What would you want to have happen if someone hurt your pet? Would stricter punishments make people think twice? Or would threats of jail time mean nothing to people who would commit such cruelties?

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