Why stricter sentencing for animal cruelty matters more than you think: By Alice Oven

Amidst fears of chlorine chickens and cheap low-welfare imports, a beacon of light for post-Brexit animal welfare has emerged in the form of Gove’s promise to increase the maximum sentence for serious animal cruelty in England. This draft bill, raising maximum jail time from six months to five years, is long overdue, bringing England into line with Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic, Australia and Canada. It’s an obvious cause for celebration for animal advocates and lawyers but, actually, human criminal lawyers should be just as happy. Why? Because evidence suggests that an animal cruelty offence is just the beginning…

Image by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

We only have to look to recent events in America to see the link between animal and human cruelty.  Last month, Nikolas Cruz walked into a Florida high school and gunned down 17 students and staff members. This wasn’t his first violent crime: not so long before, he had shot squirrels and chickens with a pellet gun, forced a dog to attack a piglet, rammed sticks into rabbit holes, and brutally killed toads. Sadly this case of animal abuse graduating to violence against humans is far from unusual: the mass shooting in a Texas church in November last year, where 26 people were killed, was perpetrated by a man cited for misdemeanour cruelty to animals.  One study found that animal abuse occurred in 88 per cent of homes where child abuse had been discovered[i].  Of those arrested for animal crimes, 65 per cent had been arrested for battery against another person[ii]A study by Northeastern University and the Massachusetts SPCA found that people who abuse animals are five times as likely to commit violent crimes against humans. Another study, conducted by Michigan State University over 21 years, found that 70 per cent of people who abused animals went on to commit other crimes, about two-thirds also assaulted a human, and 100 per cent of those who were guilty of sexual homicide had a history of cruelty to animals[iii]. I could go on and on. In fact, evidence of the link between animal and human violence is so strong that the FBI began tracking animal abuse in 2017 as a tool to help identify serial killers[iv].

Nowhere is this link more evident than in domestic abuse cases, where mistreatment of pets is one of four predictors of partner violence, according to a six-year ‘gold standard’ study conducted in 11 metropolitan cities[v]. In both domestic violence and child abuse situations, abusers may manipulate and control their human victims through threatened or actual violence against family pets.  Researchers have found that between 71 and 83 per cent of women entering domestic violence shelters reported that their partners also abused or killed their pet.[vi] This is not just an American phenomenon: discussing the One Welfare approach at the British Veterinary Nursing Association 2017 meeting, Paula Boyden of The Dogs Trust highlighted the link between violence to people and animal abuse, citing the many cases where serial killers start by killing animals[vii]. She warns that domestic human abuse can be suspected when an owner deliberately harms their pet: “when animals are abused, people are at risk – and when people are abused, animals are at risk”[viii].

Image by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

The idea that acts of animal cruelty lead to acts of violence against humans isn’t new.  Thirteenth century philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas argued that although in Catholic theology animals enjoy no moral status, it was wrong to visit cruelty upon them because people who do so would ‘graduate’ to the abuse of people. As we can see above, this has been empirically confirmed time and time again. Stricter sentencing for animal cruelty both deters potential offenders at the first step and, where this fails, keeps them in rehabilitation longer, reducing the likelihood that they will go on to harm humans.

Furthermore, studies have shown a direct correlation between areas where slaughterhouses are situated and highly increased rates of rape and domestic violence.[ix] This filtering of animal violence into human society has chilling implications. If an individual’s cruelty to animals is an indicator of their capacity for cruelty to humans, what are the consequences of our widespread cruelty to animals as a society? Despite our knowledge of animal sentience (as recognised in the Lisbon Treaty, and hopefully soon in UK law), we continue to keep animals in tortuous systems of exploitation, consuming their flesh, wearing their skin, imprisoning or hunting them for our entertainment. Does this collective violence towards a vulnerable group not indicate that society is capable of terrible violence towards other vulnerable human animals too? One need only watch the news to find the answer to that.

Arena staff and party goers at a bullfight, standing in a pool of bull’s blood (Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals)

With reference to recent federal enforcement of dog and cockfighting bans in US states, Representative Peter Roskam states “Cruelty to animals is not a form of entertainment; it’s a criminal act that puts both animals and humans at risk and is often associated with other criminal activities.Our treatment of animals is a reflection of who we are and we have a responsibility to treat animals in a humane manner.”

If we believe it is important to act for moral reasons, there are wide-reaching consequences to ignoring this responsibility: the morally dubious part of us that is responsible for our inaction on the part of injustice towards animals will remain intact, and potentially filter into our interactions in other arenas too.  That is why legal enforcement of bans on animal cruelty are so important, and why a five-year sentence is probably not long enough. We need to give animal offenders time to rehabilitate, rather than risking passing them on to our colleagues in human law.

Tougher animal sentencing conveys a powerful message: that society respects animals, reducing the gap between ‘them’, nonhuman animals, and ‘us’, human animals. Empathy is the key. As Psychology Professor Gordon Hodson states, “Reminding people that animals are quite similar to humans also increases one’s sense of moral inclusivity (i.e., who deserves moral protection) and greater willingness to intervene on behalf of marginalised outgroups”[x]. Animals deserve our moral protection, and this means they also deserve our legal protection. Moreover, in recognising that this is so, we become more empathetic towards other vulnerable groups.

When it comes to animal exploitation we are not helpless individuals: we can buy out of immoral societal systems that disrespect and marginalise animals on the basis of their species. And lawyers can help, by bringing those who harm animals to justice, hopefully aided by tougher sentences that reflect the immediate and future implications of the crimes. Together, we might just be able to create a kinder world for all sentient beings, human and nonhuman.


[i]Phillips, Allie J. D., 2010. The Link® for Prosecutors. In: NDAA (ed.) American Humanehttp://www.ndaa.org/pdf/The%20Link%20for%20Prosecutors_NDAA_Logo.pdf

[ii]Degenhardt, B. 2005. Statistical summary of offenders charged with crimes against companion animals. July 2001-July 2004. Animal Abuse Control Team. Chicago: Chicago Police Department.

[iii]Hodges, C. 2008. The link: cruelty to animals and violence towards people. Animal Legal and Historical Center, Michigan State University College of Law.


[v]Walton-Moss, B. J., Manganello, J., Frye, V. & Campbell, J. C. 2005. Risk factors for intimate partner violence and associated injury among urban women. Journal of Community Health, 30, 377-389.

[vi]DeViney, E., Dickert, J. & Lockwood, R. 1998. The care of pets within child abusing families. Cruelty to animals and interpersonal violence: Readings in research and application, 305-313.

[vii]Munro, H. M. & Munro, R. 2008. Animal abuse and unlawful killing: Forensic veterinary pathology, Elsevier Health Sciences.

[viii]Boyden, P. 2017. Recognising poor animal welfare: what are the implications? British Veterinary Nurse Association (BVNA) Annual Congress 2017. Telford, UK.

[ix]Fitzgerald, A. J., Kalof, L. & Dietz, T. 2009. Slaughterhouses and increased crime rates: An empirical analysis of the spillover from “The Jungle” into the surrounding community. Organization & Environment, 22, 158-184.

[x]Hodson, G. June 19, 2012. The Human-Animal Divide and Prejudices Against Humans: Seeing others as “less-than-human”. Psychology Todayhttps://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/without-prejudice/201206/the-human-animal-divide-and-prejudices-against-humans

All images: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

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