In the eyes of the law, animals are generally viewed as property. Animals are bought and sold, used in various industries, and do not have individual rights. However, owners of animals cannot treat or use their animals in any way they wish. Rather, state laws are enacted to protect animals from cruel and inhumane treatment.
In the state of Texas, numerous statutes govern the treatment of animals. First, criminal laws are in place to prohibit the cruel or inhumane treatment of domestic animals. Second, animals are protected from mistreatment by civil laws, which differ from criminal laws in their enforcement, scope, and penalties. Lastly, the Texas legislature recently passed in 2001 a set of laws that governs the keeping of dangerous wild animals. Together, these laws dictate what actions constitute cruelty, prescribe the potential punishments that can be inflicted, outline available defenses, and address what happens to an animal that has been cruelly treated.
Compared to the criminal cruelty statutes of other states, Texas animal cruelty laws are very narrow in their scope. Generally, state criminal cruelty laws are written to protect “every living dumb creature” or “every living vertebrate, except humans.” In a handful of states, the laws do exclude certain types of animals from the applicability of cruelty laws, such as fish, crustaceans, or invertebrates, but these exceptions are the minority. For the most part, these state laws do not differentiate between wild or domesticated animals, and the protection afforded by these laws would cover both types of animals.
However, Texas criminal cruelty laws are surprisingly narrow and only apply to any “domesticated living creature or any wild living creature previously captured.” What this means is that criminal cruelty laws protect livestock and animals that are in custody, like everyday household pets, but they do not provide any protection for animals that fall outside this narrow definition. Wild animals include deer, rabbits, squirrels, birds, or any other animal over which no one has custody. Additionally, a recent court decision in Waco, Texas, further narrowed the scope of these criminal cruelty laws by holding that a homeless cat who was beaten with a baseball and killed was not protected under the law. Although the cat had been named and cared for by a woman, the court deemed the cat wild, and thus unprotected by the criminal statutes, because he had not been technically captured. Critics have voiced their concerns over the controversial decision and the unjustified narrow scope of the law in general.
Under Texas criminal laws, the intentional or knowingly cruel treatment of animals is expressly prohibited. Therefore, accidental or negligent actions cannot be prosecuted under the cruelty statutes. Because intent and knowledge may be hard to prove during a trial, the courts have allowed juries to rely on circumstantial evidence surrounding the cruelty offense. For example, in a case involving the torture of a cat, the jury was allowed to rely on evidence that cat hair was found in the microwave, which helped them convict the defendant. In another example involving the starvation of animals, the presence of numerous emaciated animals on the property helped demonstrate that the ranch owner knew of the animals’ physical conditions.
Cruel treatment can be displayed in many ways, and Texas laws define cruelty to include two general types of actions, intentional actions and failure to act. Intentional cruel actions include: (1) torturing an animal; (2) transporting or confining an animal in a cruel manner; (3) killing, seriously injuring, or poisoning an animal; (4) causing an animal to fight with another; (5) using a live animal as a lure in a dog race; (6) tripping a horse; (7) injuring an animal belonging to another; or (8) seriously overworking an animal. The state of Texas also has criminal laws that specifically prohibit dog fighting.
Cruel treatment also includes situations where a person has failed to act or failed to provide care for an animal. Failing to act or failing to provide care rises to the level of cruelty when it involves either: (1) failing to provide necessary food, care or shelter; or (2) unreasonably abandoning an animal.
While some of these “cruelty” definitions may seem broad, it is the job of the courts to help interpret the meaning and breadth of these actions. For example, in a case where a dog was left in its owners’ car during a Texas summer, the court found that the owners had confined their pet in a cruel manner. This demonstrates that each case must be looked at according to the specific facts at hand, and each case might differ depending on the circumstances. Had the dog’s owners left their dog in the car during the spring, such action may not be deemed cruel.
Two of the most frustrating aspects of cruelty laws are that animal cruelty cases often go unreported nor are they prosecuted. However, if a person is prosecuted and found guilty of animal cruelty, Texas laws impose different punishments based on the type of cruel action involved, whether the conviction was one of many offenses, or whether the defendant involved is a minor. If a minor has committed an offense under the criminal cruelty statutes, the court may require that the child undergo psychological counseling.
For cruelty convictions involving depriving an animal of food or water, abandoning an animal, transporting an animal in a cruel manner, injuring someone else’s animal, and overworking an animal, the defendant will be punished with a Class A misdemeanor, which may include a fine up to $4,000, jail time up to a year, or both. If the conviction is a third offense involving these actions, the state may punish the defendant with a state jail felony. Under Texas law, a state jail felony may include jail time ranging from 180 days to 2 years and a fine up to $10,000.
Some cruel actions warrant harsher punishments even on the first conviction. For cruelty offenses involving the torture, killing, seriously injuring, poisoning, fighting, or tripping of an animal, a state jail felony may be imposed on the first conviction. If a defendant is convicted three times under these harsher penalties, he may be subject to a third degree felony sentence, which translates to imprisonment ranging from 2 to 10 years and a possible fine of up to $10,000.
The state of Texas also has civil laws that govern the disposition of animals that have been cruelly treated. These civil laws differ from the cruelty laws discussed above in a number of ways. First of all, in a civil action, private parties or a justice of the peace can bring suit against the violator. A private party may sue the violator to recover damages for the loss of their animal, or a justice of the peace may use the civil laws to order the seizure of a cruelly treated animal. In criminal actions, it is the State, through a prosecutor or district attorney, that is charged with enforcing the law.
Secondly, the scope of civil laws is broader than criminal laws. These civil laws are defined to apply to “every living dumb creature.” Accordingly, it seems that these civil laws could apply to both domestic and wild animals. However, although their scope is broader, the civil statutes adopt a much narrower definition of what constitutes cruelty. “Cruel treatment” in the civil context includes: (1) torturing an animal; (2) seriously overworking an animal; (3) unreasonably depriving an animal of necessary food, care, or shelter; (4) cruelly confining an animal; and (5) causing an animal to fight with another animal. Similar to interpreting criminal statutes, the courts are charged with interpreting the meaning of these civil laws. In a couple of novel cases, Texas courts have decided that these civil statutes do not apply to animal demonstration situations or wrestling matches between humans and other animals (specifically bears).
Lastly, another major difference between civil and criminal cruelty statutes lies in the penalties imposed. In a criminal proceeding, a defendant may face the loss of freedom, a fine, or both. Furthermore, he could have the animal taken away from him. However, in a civil proceeding involving animal cruelty, the owner of the animal does not face any jail time. Instead, the animal’s owner may bring suit against the violator to request that he pay damages to the owner. Additionally, the court could order that the violator relinquish ownership in any animals he has in his custody. In both criminal and civil proceedings, the court could order that the animal be seized and either sold at auction, given to an animal rescue group, or humanely euthanized if it was in the animal’s best interest.
Texas laws also outline permissible defenses that a person could argue if he were brought to court on animal cruelty charges. While a defendant’s actions may technically fall within the cruelty definition, the law does recognize that there are a very limited number of circumstances in which injuring or killing an animal is allowable. First, in a situation where a person killed someone else’s animal, the law will not hold the person responsible if the animal was discovered on another’s property and was in the midst of killing or injuring another domestic animal. Second, tripping a horse is allowed if it is done so for identification purposes or for veterinary care purposes. Third, a person may kill an animal if he is in fear of bodily injury to himself or another person. Lastly, a person is allowed to kill an animal if it is generally acceptable and otherwise lawful. This last provision addresses situations like fishing, hunting, livestock management, or wildlife control.
What About Wild Animals?
Recently, in September of 2001, the Texas legislature passed a set of laws that governs the keeping of dangerous wild animals. The general idea of the statute is that a person may not own, harbor, or have custody of a dangerous wild animal for any purpose unless that person registers the animal with the county or local animal agency. The law defines “dangerous wild animal” to include animals such as lions, tigers, leopards, bears, and chimpanzees, among many others. The new laws require that every dangerous wild animal be registered in the county in which it is located. Additionally, the new laws set forth minimum requirements for keeping such animals, such as enclosure size requirements and treatment standards.
Whether this new law becomes an effective way to ensure humane treatment of wild animals remains to be seen. First, the scope of this statute is not far-reaching. The new law does not apply to entities such as research facilities, zoos, circuses, television or motion picture companies, college mascots, or primates used in biomedical research. Second, some counties have not yet implemented nor administered the certification program required by these new laws despite the fact that such programs were statutorily required to be in effect by December 1, 2001. Recently, the Texas Attorney General issued an opinion that clarifies the duties each county has in establishing registration programs for dangerous wild animals. Specifically, each county in Texas has two options: it can choose to entirely prohibit the ownership of dangerous wild animals, or it must establish a registration program to ensure that these animals are contained and cared for in a proper manner. Whether county authorities will comply with this legislative and judicial mandate is yet to be seen.