Opinion Piece: Animal Cruelty Needs Tougher Penalties


Paul Williams From: The Courier-Mail January 04, 2011


I don'T think I can stomach another news report involving wicked and wanton animal cruelty. To read and see images of an injured Shetland pony, allegedly dragged behind a car near Toowoomba by youths, on Christmas Day of all times, is beyond heartbreaking. It tears at the very soul.


It also gives pause for painful thought as to what constitutes humanity and how it is possible for such monstrous sadism to form any part of it.


Who wasn't shocked at the case last month of a cat hanged in Victoria, or at the callousness of three high school boys who bashed a kangaroo to death in September? Who cannot be outraged by the burning alive of a cat in Sydney in July, or by the senseless butchering, in Bundaberg in 2008, of a tame and trusting emu named Mary? I could go on, but I shan't. My blood boils too much.


I know I'm not alone. In fact, I find responses to animal cruelty are often visceral. The more extreme resemble an angry mob demanding primeval vengeance. And who can blame them?


In less enlightened times, judicial corporal punishment such as strokes of a cane, meted out by courts and inflicted publicly or in private, would have been an option. But today we are a thinking society. The community's role is to show humanity to the most wretched, even when the wretched appear inhuman.


Yet, even among moderates, the common view is that statutory punishments for offences against animals are pathetically weak and, even when not, courts rarely impose stiff penalties. Despite the maximum penalty for animal cruelty in Queensland, under the Animal Care and Protection Act (2001), being 1000 "penalty units" (currently $100,000) and two years' imprisonment, it is difficult to recall any case of aggravated cruelty ending in jail time.


According to the RSPCA, the heaviest penalties meted out in 2008-09 were two fines of $12,500 each, with two other convictions resulting in 18 months' probation. One of these involved a pack of youths who clubbed a kitten senseless, then stomped on its head.


This was not a case of casual neglect. It was instead base brutality in which young men, in some pathetic ritual of peer bonding, failed to demonstrate the most basic human quality – a sensitivity to suffering.


I favour increased penalties. Western Australia's maximum sentence for animal cruelty stands at five years in jail. But I also understand that punishment, on its own, will do little to change anti-social behaviour. After all, what drunken youth, about to kill someone's beloved pet, stops to ponder recent amendments to the Animal Care and Protection Act?


Instead another radical shake-up of our cultural values towards animals is needed.


Society has already come a long way. As recently as the 19th century, before the growth in animal protection societies such as the RSPCA, most creatures, and especially farm animals, were regarded as little more than tools for human disposal and valued decidedly less than, say, machinery.


After a century of public awareness and judicial enforcement, the vulnerability of horses, cows, dogs and others has become widely known. Today, almost all of us now know, as the great English philosopher Jeremy Bentham reminded us, that the question is not "Can they reason?" or "Can they talk?" but rather "Can they suffer?"


But with animal neglect, abandonment and cruelty on the rise, it seems a new insensitivity has crept in.


Another cultural shift is overdue and we need to re-learn that animals are in need of the same level of protection as children and the elderly - especially as animals, so trusting of humanity, have no human voice to identify their tormentors.


Importantly, there is a library of evidence that indicates a link between animal cruelty and a perpetrator's propensity for violence.


If the community can break the twisted need among some to abuse animals, we might go far in curbing all anti-social behaviour.


I have no definitive answers as to how we do this. But a simple and obvious starting point is for governments to do two things: increase penalties for animal abuse and increase financial support to the RSPCA, a body that receives just 2 per cent of its funding from governments.


The innocence of animals demands it.



Professor Emeritus Marc Bekoff has just published an article in Psychology Today, questioning contemporary reliance on animal models, and especially, chimpanzees, within biomedical research. 


The article can be found at HERE.