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Speakers Discuss Animal Cruelty Prosecution and Legislation at First Annual Animal Law Week

March 22, 2012

As part of the law school’s first annual Animal Law Week, on March 21, Barbara Paul, assistant district attorney for the City of Philadelphia, discussed the elements of prosecuting animal cruelty cases, from the inception of an animal cruelty investigation through prosecution.  Paul was sure to point out that an animal cruelty prosecutor is only as good as his or her investigation.  Therefore, Paul said, it is important for prosecutors to work hand in hand with the Pennsylvania SPCA (PSPCA), a humane law enforcement department that responds to situations of animal cruelty and neglect.

PSPCA director of humane law enforcement, George Bengal, who has been involved in several high-profile animal cruelty busts, including a recent raid on a Philadelphia dog fighting ring, joined the conversation commenting that animal cruelty is usually accompanied by several other offenses such as drug and gun trafficking.  Yet, despite its connection to other crimes, both Paul and Bengal said that the penalties for animal cruelty are usually no more than summary charges, the same penalty people face for drinking in public or truancy.  Paul and Bengal agreed that a significant impact cannot be made on animal cruelty until the penalties for animal abuse are much greater and infractions usually treated as summary offenses start with a minimum penalty of misdemeanor.

This past Monday, Animal Law Week kicked off with Muzzling a Movement, a discussion of animal welfare legislation and law, which similarly highlighted some of the obstacles facing those trying to eliminate animal cruelty.  Sarah Speed, Humane Society state legislative director, and Dara Lovitz, animal law professor and author of “Muzzling a Movement: The Effects of Anti-Terrorism Law, Money & Politics on Animal Activism,” outlined some of the legislative obstacles animal activists face.

Specifically, Speed discussed “ag-gag” bills which criminalize the photographing, videotaping or audiotaping livestock and farm fields as well as the possession and distribution of these images and sounds. Speed argued that these ag-gag bills make it difficult for activists to educate the public about animal cruelty.  Moreover, Speed added, these same obstacles hinder activists’ efforts to promote new legislation because it is very difficult to convince legislators to pass animal cruelty laws without documentary evidence of the cruelty.  For example, video, an excellent form of evidence, is the exact medium ag-gag bills are designed to repress, Speed submitted.

Dara Lovitz similarly discussed the importance of video as a means of documenting animal cruelty, citing that video was a key piece of evidence in Commonwealth v. Esbenshade, a Pennsylvania animal cruelty case against an egg factory and owner in which Lovitz served as special prosecutor.

Similar to Speed’s discussion of ag-gag bills, Lovitz added that the passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), a 2006 federal law which prohibits any person from engaging in conduct for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise, has substantially curtailed efforts to obtain the kind of evidence that was so influential in Esbenshade.  Lovitz argued that the AETA groups typically nonviolent animal activists in the same category as some violent extremists, thus, not only hindering activists’ ability to document animal cruelty, but also unfairly and inappropriately destroying their credibility.