Monday, December 31, 2007

What is the "pro-animal" agenda?

I got to visit yesterday with a friend who works for the Humane Society, who mentioned something I found interesting: I enviously observed that it must be a lot easier to advocate for puppies and kittens than for people caught up in the justice system, to which she replied that the Humane Society policy agenda was "boring." "It's all enhancements," she said, "just increasing penalties for animal cruelty, stuff like that."

That's a shame. Nobody is more pro-dog than me (not really a cat person), but it makes little sense to increase penalties for animal cruelty when the current laws go largely unenforced until an animal has already met its untimely demise. If you want to prevent animal cruelty, or investigate allegations thereof, spending greater resources on enforcement on the front end would do a lot more good than punishing the occasional person actually caught more severely.

It shouldn't be necessary for criminal justice reformers and animal advocates like the Humane Society to be on opposite sides of the political fence. Historically, the knee-jerk, bipartisan first reaction to every social woe is to pass a law against it and increase penalties if the law doesn't stop it. For many offenses though, like drug use and animal cruelty, that approach has largely failed to stop the behaviors.

So what might a more effective pro-animal political agenda look like that did not focus on increasing criminal penalties?

Most public education efforts typically aren't very effective, my friend said, but perhaps it would be possible to think creatively about that: We don't need to "educate" everyone, since most people don't abuse animals, but only those who've engaged in the behavior. What if the punishment for animal cruelty weren't incarceration, but education for offenders including community service jobs that provide supervised services to abused animals (or even just shoveling poop at the dog pound). Maybe education resources would be better spent more intensively on the handful of people prone to abusing animals rather than on the general population.

What other pro-animal agenda might be developed that doesn't involve penalty increases? The obvious ones are funding for dog pounds, spay/neutering functions, "rescue" services, perhaps marketing for pet adoption, programs to train dogs for dog owners with disabilities or other special needs. I'd also like to see offenders sentenced to some sort of peer education, using those who've engaged in activities like dog fighting, e.g., to perform pub ed functions within their own social networks as part of community supervision.

There must be other ways the government could reduce animal cruelty besides just increasing penalties. Let me know in the comments if you can think of any others.


Anonymous said...

Of course there are other ways! An example would be smoking. 15 years ago, "who cared"; everyone or nearly everyone smoked. Now it is socially unacceptable and the percentage of the population in many places has dropped significantly.

The success of the anti smoking efforts have been largely a result of education, regulation of advertisements, taxation and civil suits brought by folks that died of smoking. As far as I know, no one went to prison for smoking tobacco.

Yes, it has taken a while because anything worth doing takes a while. Animal cruelty, graffitti, and many other social problems do not get solved by increasing penalties.

I agree, there are much more beneficial alternatives to incarceration, we all need to be looking for them every single day!

Anonymous said...

They might get more respect from me when they stop prosecuting people for shooting stray cats to protect endangered birds.

Anonymous said...

hmm. as a parent of 5 pound puppies, and an employee of TYC, seems like kids and dogs are treated the same.

jdgalt said...

Most local humane societies, at least in the "blue" states, are no longer the sensible, moderate anti-cruelty advocates they were 20 years ago. They have been systematically taken over by extremist groups such as PETA, which wants to outlaw the meat industry and finances domestic terrorism (see for details).

And as for why "the laws go largely unenforced until an animal [dies]"? Because otherwise you're punishing someone, not for harm they've done but for harm they might do in the future, and that violates due process. (And so would any way I can think of to enforce it: do you want to require that every owner of a licensed pet bring it in for quarterly checkups, so he can be punished if the animal has been mistreated? If so, any pet owner whose cat gets hurt while prowling outdoors is in trouble, since he can't point the finger at the person or animal who did the damage; and the likely incentive effect of this law is that pet owners will stop registering their pets. I know I would.)

There's a strong parallel here with laws that attempt to halt the (largely media invented) "crack baby syndrome" by testing expectant mothers and/or newborns for drugs, and arresting the mother if any are found. While the problem this "feel good" law tries to solve is real, experience has shown that the law greatly increases infant deaths by deterring mothers - not from using drugs, but from coming in for prenatal care. Before you pursue an animal-cruelty prevention law, be careful that it doesn't create a similar incentive trap.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for raising this question. Its something all of us concerned with protecting pets and humans alike should be thinking about.

There is hope in this arena. Just like Anonymous pointed out, attitudes towards smoking have changed to the point so that smoking is no longer the sexy, avante garde hapbit of the 1950's. We can do the same thing with animal abuse.

Look at the recent Michael Vick case. Within a month of his entering prison, police in Missouri made a major bust of dogfighters in an area they had trouble arresting anyone before. Why? The person who called in the tip said it was because he realized how bad dogfighting was because of the outrage over Vick's dogfighting. Only one case I know but a a major breakthrough in an area of the country where dogfighting was considered part of life, not something bad.

So how do we make this societal change? Sure education is important but not nearly as important as making dogfighting openly despised and even embarressing to those who do it. Show dogfighting, and other forms of abuse, as something that marks the abuser as a bad, worthless, slimy person. Don't let them off with its "part of their culture" or "they didn't know any better."

Ultimately, the dog abuser goes on to be the human abuser. If we want to make our children and others safer, then we have to find ways to decrease animal abuse.

And to the poster who said that local humane shelters had been taken over by PETA types, I'm not sure who you know or speak with but I hear from animal rescuers and protectors from all over the world. Very few are "extremists." Most, including profesional humane workers, are deeply devoted to caring for the animals they rescue. These are not the people throwing blood on furcoats, releasing research animals from cages, and protesting dog shows. They are the people rescuing the abandoned and serially abused dogs from puppy mills, educating people about the ills of buying puppy mill puppies through pet stores, fighting against Breed Specific Legislation and giving comfort to the dogs and cats who have never known any before.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that the first child protective laws in this country were spurred by the MSPCA.

Ted Rheingold said...

I very much like the idea of education. What if there was pet-ownership school as there is traffic school. It would be very easy for law enforcement to offer a citation with required attendance than to deal with prosecuting.

Not that I don't think animal abusers should be prosecuted to the full letter of the law, but if they aren't be prosecuted at all, this would make it easier for people to learn to be better instead of having a blind eye turned on them.

Also teaching proper animal practices in elementary schools would go a long way.

Anonymous said...

We don't need harsher laws. We need for law enforcement to enforce the laws that are currently on the books. The Texas Penal Code has some pretty good statutes for addressing animal cruelty. The problem is, especially in rural areas, there is little or no interest on the part of law enforcement in enforcing these laws.