As more details emerge from what happened in Wellsford two days ago, the whole picture gets a great deal grimmer. In New Zealand terms, this was a huge story, splashed all over the front page of the Herald, and it has garnered considerable attention. Sadly, it says a lot about our view towards animals, and highlights some of the weaknesses of the existing animal welfare system. Incidentally, if you haven’t done so, it’s probably worth reading what I had to say on this yesterday, as I don’t plan on repeating any details of the case that I talked about then. But here are six additional things to think about:
First, the horrors of the incident should not be underestimated. When SPCA inspectors, who see plenty of awful things done to animals every day, are left speechless – it’s pretty bad news. The perpetrator of the act deserves the condemnation he’s getting now, and hopefully the jail time he deserves. Let’s be honest. That’s one pretty sick guy.
Second, it’s still not absolutely certain that a prosecution will take place, though I’m guessing this is probably just the SPCA being extra cautious with the media. As I suggested yesterday, there is a good case to prosecute based on the emotional harm alone, but now it seems that because of the injuries sustained, there is a very good case for physical harm as well. My real hope is that the police will take over carriage of the case, assuming they prosecute for firearms offences as well. More likely to get a good result, as we’ve seen in past cases. Indeed, all of the highest sentences imposed in this country have been in cases run by the police that combine animal cruelty with other offending. Additionally, the police have better prosecutors and more resources to run the case properly. The SPCA will assist, to be sure, but I’d prefer to have the experts running the trial or sentence hearing. [And please – no charge bargaining!]
Third, I’m very interested to see what charges are laid. The garden variety ‘ill-treatment’ under s 29(a) is a no-brainer, but I think the police or SPCA will have more difficulty establishing the more serious offence under s 28 – wilful ill-treatment causing death. The wording of this section has never been judicially interpreted, and the prosecution will need to show that the wilful ill-treatment took place ‘in such a way’ that the animal dies. Now, this may well be a no-brainer, but remember that killing an animal is not a crime, and a clever lawyer could suggest that the cruelty (being the shots that didn’t kill the animals – which is where the cruelty comes from) didn’t actually cause death. I’m not saying this will work, as I believe the wording of the statute is broad enough to encompass actions that occurred in this case, but it is worth litigating. By the way, this shows the weakness of our existing regime. The problem is the high disparity between the punishments set out for ss 28 and 29(a). There needs to be an intermediate position, otherwise the SPCA might feel compelled to take the ‘sure thing’, a conviction under s 29(a).
Which leads to my fourth point. Not surprisingly, National MP Simon Bridges has jumped on the bandwagon to use this offence as a chance to promote his Bill asking for a higher penalty for offences committed under s 28. It may surprise people to hear that I don’t agree with this Bill. The reasons are too complex to go into here, but to put it succinctly: I think raising penalties is a way to distract us from the real problems of animal cruelty; it wouldn’t do much; it is more media ‘spin’ designed to get people thinking we are doing something; it doesn’t address the real problems in sentencing (lack of guidelines, disparity between crimes set out above); and it might be counterproductive (higher penalties, higher stakes, more procedural protections). Seems I’ll need a blog for that in future!
Finally, I need to talk a little bit more about the owner. Feedback on line and in my in-box has been mixed about his actions, portraying him as both an offender and victim. To be sure, he’s not the real villain in this piece. But I have trouble accepting that he’s blameless, and I do feel that his actions should be examined. In the last blog, I talked about his ownership of dogs, the fact that he was happy to dump extras on the SPCA, and questioned his failure to register his animals. None of these things speak to a sound, reasonable dog owner.
The more I read, the less I like him. Again, there’s plenty of attempt at victim sympathy in the reports:
“If you had your family shot, how would you feel?” he said. “Even though they were dogs, they were my family. Life goes on but it’s not the same.”
Mr Hargreaves is keeping about eight surviving pups – including four only three days old that hid under another dog, which perished – in his mechanical workshop in Wellsford.
He says he’s preparing a statement that will tell his side of the story. Well, here’s what I know about him so far:
- He kept a lot of dogs – far too many – in an enclosure. This enclosure may not have breached the minimum requirements of the AWA, but I’m guessing it wasn’t great either.
- He didn’t register his animals, which is part of what leads to the hysteria about dangerous dogs that is currently going on.
- He refused to neuter his animals, resulting in plenty more.
- When he had too many, his answer was to dump some on the SPCA. Let’s make it someone else’s problem. Now that’s an animal lover!
- How does Mr. Hargreaves care for his animals? Ahh… like members of his family, apparently: As the Herald reported, ‘he found one of his dogs attacking a sheep a day before the slaughter. He destroyed the animal, and another with similar colourings.’ As I said yesterday, I’m glad I’m not a member of his family. By the way, how did that dog get out to attack the sheep. Surely it couldn’t have been poor ownership skills?
- And finally, as if that’s not enough, let’s not forget how this all happened. Sure, two guys with guns appeared on his property and demanded to kill his dogs. But there’s no evidence they threatened him directly. If they had, the police would be instituting much bigger charges! What did Mr. Hargreaves do for his ‘family’? Did he say, ‘How about I call the police and we resolve this properly?’ Heck, no. He signed a consent form, and let these butchers do their work.
Frankly, I think there are plenty of grounds to charge Hargreaves as well, both under the Dog Control Act and, possibly, under the Animal Welfare Act 1999. Even if charges are avoided, let’s please not think of him as blameless in this horror story.