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Federal Anti-Cruelty Laws

Preventing and punishing animal abuse, cruelty and neglect are largely the responsibilities of the individual states. On March 14, 2014, South Dakota became the 50th state to enact a felony provision for animal cruelty. Anti-cruelty laws carrying felony penalties are important in combatting animal abuse and state enactment and enforcement demonstrate that our society is getting serious about ending animal abuse.

Many states are establishing animal abuser registries to keep animals out of the hands of convicted animal abusers. And with growing public awareness and support for animal protection issues, Congress has begun using its powers under the Commerce Clause to punish animal abusers on a federal level. Under the Commerce Clause, Congress has the authority to regulate activity that affects interstate commerce, business activity that occurs between two or more states. Since 2010, Congress has passed two federal anti-cruelty laws that punish animal abusers by using its Commerce Clause powers.

Animal Crush Videos

Animal crush videos are depictions of violence against animals where, generally, the face of the human is not shown but only the violence or act of cruelty perpetrated on the animals. Among the most notorious of these videos is one showing a woman in high-heeled shoes stomping on a kitten. Because it is very difficult to find the person committing the abuse, a prohibition against selling or distributing these videos is considered necessary to combat this abusive pornography.

The first version of an anti-cruelty law targeting crush videos was struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Stevens, which held that under the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech, the statute was overly broad. Under the current version, which specifically invokes the Commerce Clause, “it shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly create an animal crush video if the person intends or has reason to know that the animal crush video will be distributed in, or using a means or facility of, interstate or foreign commerce; or the animal crush video is distributed in, or using a means or facility of, interstate or foreign commerce.” Furthermore, “it shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly sell, market, advertise, exchange, or distribute an animal crush video in, or using a means or facility of, interstate or foreign commerce.”

Animal Fighting Venture Prohibition

Another federal anti-cruelty law prohibits animal fighting. Animal fighting ventures are “any event, in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, that involves a fight conducted or to be conducted between at least 2 animals for purposes of sport, wagering, or entertainment”. Organized animal fighting is a secretive “industry” where brutal contests that pit dog versus dog, dog versus hog or other animal and cockfighting. This “sport” is often fought to the death or leaves animals maimed and injured. Animal fighting activities also attract other serious crimes, such as gambling, drug dealing, weapons offenses and money laundering. Bait animals are also used and pet theft is one way these animals are obtained.

Along with a flat-out ban on sponsoring, attending, or bringing a minor under 16 years old to an animal fight, Congress used its Commerce Clause powers to prohibit the use of an “instrumentality of interstate commerce” to transport and sell animals and training instruments, which include “any written, wire, radio, television, or other form of communication in, or using a facility of, interstate commerce.” This anti-cruelty law permits federal charges to be brought against individuals for fighting animals even if local authorities fail to bring charges—so long as any of the animals were brought from another state or the fighting event was even advertised in a state other than the one where the fight occurred. In the 2007 Michael Vick/Bad Newz Kennels dog fighting case, federal charges were brought before the state of Virginia brought any charges for violation of state animal anti-cruelty laws. Michael Vick was convicted on both federal and state charges. It is questionable whether state authorities would have brought these charges if not for the federal case.

FBI National Incident-Based Reporting System Tracking

In addition to these federal anti-cruelty laws, the FBI announced in early 2014 that it was changing its policy regarding the tracking of animal abuse crimes, including reporting on local, state and federal crimes. Previously, the FBI filed animal abuse crimes under the label “other,” which lumped animal abuse crimes in with lesser crimes, which made animal abuse crimes difficult to find and challenging to track. Beginning in 2016, the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System added an animal cruelty offense category that will be broken down into four subcategories: simple/gross neglect, intentional abuse and torture, organized abuse (dog fighting and cock fighting), and animal sexual abuse. This change was the result of the combined efforts of the National Sheriff’s Association and the Animal Welfare Institute. Violence towards animals is an early indicator of future violent crime towards humans. Early identification through this improved tracking system may help prevent future violent crimes through recommendation of mental health services.