Dog found with muzzle taped shut: How well do US laws protect animals?

A man was arrested Monday in the South Carolina case of a chocolate Staffordshire that had her muzzle taped shut. Three quarters of US states and territories have improved their animal protection laws over the past five years, a report says.

On Monday, police in South Carolina arrested a man in connection with an animal cruelty case. A 15-month-old chocolate Staffordshire was found last week wandering the streets of North Charleston with her muzzle taped shut, attracting worldwide attention and outraging animal rights advocates. The man who was arrested, William Leonard Dodson, has been charged with ill treatment of an animal involving torture. 

While the dog, called Caitlyn, is now in the care of the Charleston Animal Society, where she is recovering, her case has raised questions about how effective animal welfare laws are in the United States.

Three quarters of US states and territories have improved their animal protection laws over the past five years, according to an annual report released by the Animal Legal Defense Fund. But of the 56 jurisdictions included in that study, South Carolina, where Caitlyn the Staffie was discovered, ranked No. 45. And Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Iowa, and Kentucky were singled out for lacking a variety of basic protections for animals.

“There was concern in South Carolina that if the reward [leading to an arrest] was too big, the perpetrator might turn himself in to collect the award because the downside of being convicted [of animal cruelty] is so ridiculously low compared to other states,” says Scott Heiser, director of the Criminal Justice Program at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which is based in Cotati, Calif.

Animal protections laws have existed in America since before the country gained independence from Britain. The Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted the first law about animal cruelty as early as 1641.

“No man shall exercise any Tirranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man’s use,” the law read, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Leading the way today are Illinois, Maine, Oregon, California, and Michigan, according to "U.S. Animal Protection Laws & Rankings," the report from the Animal Legal Defense Fund. These states have consistently ranked best for animal protection over the past seven years, offering a range of protections against cruelty, neglect, abandonment, sexual assault, and organized fighting.

The report’s authors reviewed more than 4,000 pages of statutes and considered 15 categories of animal protection to rank the 56 jurisdictions.  

Illinois gives humane agents some law enforcement authority and allows courts to order that individuals convicted of animal abuse forfeit their animals. Offenders may also be subject to mandatory counseling.

Maine, meanwhile, has made it mandatory to report a veterinarian suspected of aggravated animal cruelty.

Since the first "U.S. Animal Protection Laws & Rankings" report was released in 2006, 14 more jurisdictions have made it a felony to engage in repeated or aggravated animal neglect. That means that all states now have such legislation. South Dakota was the last state to pass a felony penalty, which it did last year.

Still, the US lags behind some countries in regard to animal welfare protections, some say.

“Overall, animals around the world don’t have many rights. But there are countries such as Germany and Switzerland that have very strong laws, and India and Ecuador. India has a constitutional protection, and Ecuador just passed some of the most stringent legislation out there over the last three months,” says Mike Harris, director of the Wildlife Law Program for the organization Friends of Animals, which is based in Darien, Conn.

“We’re [the US] probably somewhere in the upper half, but we don’t have enough at the federal level, and that’s the problem,” he says.

The European Union adopted legislation in 1998 that set general rules for the protection of farm animals. The law dictates that such animals be free from pain, fear, injury, and distress, among other things.

In 2008, Spain became the first country to grant great apes “human rights,” banning experimentation on a variety of primates. Britain, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, and Austria also prohibit experiments on great apes. The US does not have similar legislation. 

A year after Spain gave apes human rights, European animal advocates succeeded in having a provision included in the Treaty of Lisbon, the constitutional basis of the EU, that refers to animals as “sentient beings” – like humans, capable of feeling and perception.

Animal rights advocates say that while animal protection laws in the US are improving, some states still have a lot of room for improvement.

“In general, on a national level, the trend is good. But if you go state by state, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes there are big steps back,” Mr. Heiser says.

Still, he says, “there is a very favorable trend as legislators recognize that this is an issue their constituents care about.”

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