National party MP, Simon Bridges, has drafted a private member’s bill to increase the maximum penalty for wilful ill treatment of animals from three years imprisonment to five years.
As always in public discourse, the primary justification for this increase of the sanction is that abuse of animals leads to – or is at least an early indicator of – violence against humans.
It is encouraging to see these issues raised in the mainstream media but this call for tougher penalties highlights a number of the shortcomings of the law around animal cruelty. Namely: That sentences are so far short of the current maximum that an increase will be largely academic; the fact that the sanction is criminal actually militates against its implementation; and, the real problem is with a distinct lack of enforcement and prosecutions.David Jones QC, one of the SPCA’s Pro Bono Panel of Prosecutors, has written in the Auckland District Law Society newsletter that an increase in these sentences will lead to longer sentences. But this is hard to see when sentences are as light as they are at present.
Just a couple of recent examples:
- Beating a dog with a metal pole and then strangling it to death earned the perpetrator a four month jail term.
- In a case which was widely reported this year, Peter James Cooksley shot a cat through the abdomen with a crossbow when he caught it eating chicken he had left out on his kitchen bench. The cat was found some time later, still alive, and died after surgery. He was fined $500. Despite the SPCA prosecutor’s request that an order be made for the destruction of the weapon, Cooksley was also allowed to keep the crossbow; District Court Judge Blackie held that it was needed for ‘legitimate hunting purposes’.
In the ten years the the Animal Welfare Act has been in force, the longest sentence imposed for its most serious offence is a twelve month jail sentence which was subsequently reduced to ten months. Given this, it is difficult to see how lifting a maximum sentence from over three times that which has ever been imposed to five times more is going to make any real difference to the punishments that are actually meted out.
Another difficulty in this area of the law is the fact that the sanctions are criminal. While ‘getting tough on crime’ makes for great rhetoric, judges appear to be loath to impose a prison term and its attendant consequences for a crime committed against ‘just’ an animal. This is a case where formulating a tougher sanction makes it less likely to be imposed when it is seen to be disproportionate to the harm caused.
Ultimately, the real problem in New Zealand is very limited capacity for enforcement of welfare laws. The police rarely bother with animal offences and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry – which focuses almost exclusively on the agricultural sector – has only seven inspectors to cover the entire country.
This leaves the bulk of prosecutions to the SPCA which is entirely privately funded. The Auckland SPCA run about 40 prosecutions per year which can cost between $10 000 and $15 000 each. If the government were truly committed to sending out a message that animal abuse is unacceptable, they could pick up – or at least contribute to – this tab of $400 000 to $600 000 per year. Instead, Mr. Bridges offers us a proposal that sounds impressive, plays well in the press, achieves very little, and costs the government nothing.