April is Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month; which states fall short in their protections?
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Where does your state rank in terms of legal protections for animals? If you live in Iowa, Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota or Kentucky, you might be dismayed to learn that those states have the weakest protections for animal welfare, with Kentucky in last place for the 11th consecutive year. That’s based on annual review of state laws by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which recently published its 12th annual rankings report.
States with low rankings may have passive flaws, such as outdated language or not keeping up with changing attitudes toward companion animals, livestock and wildlife, but others prohibit actions that could help animals. In Kentucky, for instance, it’s illegal for veterinarians to report abuse and neglect without a court order, subpoena or client waiver. Utah, Wyoming and Iowa don’t prohibit veterinary reporting of cruelty, but they also don’t mandate it.
“Veterinary reporting is a really important part of any animal cruelty investigation,” says Lora Dunn, director of ALDF’s criminal justice program. “Veterinarians are sometimes the only humans besides the perpetrator who actually witness the abuse or neglect.”
Poor definitions of care, weak or nonexistent penalties, and limited or no restrictions on ownership for people convicted of cruelty can also put states at the bottom of the pack.
Defining standards of care, such as the terms “adequate food,” “potable water” and “living space,” helps law enforcement officials determine whether a crime has been committed. When those criteria are not spelled out, neglect and cruelty become a matter of opinion.
States with low rankings often label cruelty, neglect and abandonment as misdemeanors, not felonies. In the bottom five states, humane officers lack broad law enforcement authority.
To determine its rankings, the organization looks at 15 categories of animal protection: general prohibitions; penalties; exemptions; mental health evaluations and counseling; protective orders; cost mitigation and recovery; seizure/impound; forfeiture and post-conviction possession; non-animal agency reporting of suspected animal cruelty; veterinarian reporting of suspected animal cruelty; law enforcement policies; sexual assault; fighting; offender registration; and “ag-gag” legislation, which are laws that punish whistleblowers revealing abuse on factory farms.
Top dogs in animal protection laws are Illinois, which has held first place for the past 10 years, plus Oregon, California, Maine and Rhode Island. Illinois ranks highest for such provisions as felony penalties for cruelty, neglect, fighting, abandonment and sexual assault. The top five states have a full range of statutory protections, require mental health evaluations or counseling for offenders, and restrict ownership of animals after a conviction. With the exception of Rhode Island, those states permit animals to be included in domestic violence protective orders.
In the past five years, more than half of all states have made improvements in their laws, Dunn says. Last year, Pennsylvania made the biggest leap, from 44th to 24th place. Improvements there included a new felony provision for first-time offenders of aggravated animal cruelty, including torture, and granting civil immunity to veterinarians who report suspected animal abuse.
One nationwide trend is “hot cars” laws addressing “reckless endangerment” of pets. In more than 25 states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nevada and Oregon, it’s now illegal to leave an animal in a vehicle in certain conditions and temperatures. The laws may also offer civil or criminal immunity to people who remove animals from vehicles, if they meet criteria such as seeking the owner or calling law enforcement before doing so.
“The majority of states have updated and improved their animal protection laws over the past 12 years, and that is a direct reflection of the public’s demand for change and for better protection of animals and animal victims,” Dunn says.