Cruelty: behavior that causes pain or suffering to a person or animal; behavior that causes physical or mental harm to another.
Neglect: fail to care for properly
Over the past decade, animal welfare professionals and city governments have been cracking down on animal cruelty. The crackdown on animal cruelty has come as we've become increasingly aware of the connections between animal cruelty and mistreatment of humans, and at a time when 95% of Americans consider their pets to be part of the family and 45% of pet owners say they've at least occasionally bought birthday presents for their pets. As Americans have more and more embraced pets as a part of the family, our tolerance for people who mistreat has decreased accordingly.
Now, more than ever, training is available for animal control officers to learn more about animal cruelty, how to gather evidence for it, and how to prosecute it. The ASPCA offers a series of online courses on the topic (with special emphasis on dog fighting). The National Animal Control Association training includes similar information on evidence collection and fighting cruelty.
I think most would agree that this is a good thing, and that we SHOULD be more harshly punishing people who are cruel to animals. This increased awareness has led to an increase in fines, and even jail time, for violators of animal cruelty laws.
However, in many ways I think the idea of "neglect" has gotten completely overlooked. Or has gotten completely wrapped up into the notion of "cruelty" and the two are used interchangeably.
It's understandable haw this happened. In looking at the bylaws of several Midwest cities, every single community I reviewed had "cruelty" or "abuse" laws and "neglect" laws as a part of the same city code. And I'd define these two as very different (in most cases) and needing different types of training to enforce.
Animal Cruelty would be the intentional hurting of animals through abusive behavior.
Neglect would be failing to care for properly and not meeting the needs of the pet. While obviously there are extreme situations where the neglect is so severe is crosses into cruelty, in a large number of cases it does not.
While "cruelty" should be met with the hammer of prosecution. Neglect would often be better met with compassion and assistance. In the May/June issue of Animal Sheltering there is a story that highlights this:
"Another of Russell’s early cases involved a thin, “very sickly looking” cat, whose situation at first didn’t seem much different from that of the starved puggle. But in talking with the owner, she found that he was trying to do right by the animal. He was feeding his cat two cans of tuna and a bowl of milk every day, using his food stamps to purchase those items. “He really loved his cat. He loved him to death,” Russell says. “He thought that’s what cats eat, because that’s what he saw on TV.”
With guidance from Russell, he switched to a commercial kibble and water, and the cat wound up thriving. “Sometimes,” she says, “it’s just … getting people to make that step into thinking that maybe the way their great-grandparents raised their pets isn’t the appropriate way.”
The case falls under "neglect". Had there not been intervention by the Animal Control Officer Russell, the cat likely would have died. However, in this case the officer did the right thing by HELPING the cat owner learn more about proper feeding of the cat and helped him care for a pet he dearly loved.
This is often what simple neglect looks like. It often involves an owner that really does care about the pet, but doesn't always have the proper resources (either education or $$$) to properly care for the them. It might be feeding their pet an improper diet; or an inability to provide full veterinary care. Or they may not be able to afford a good collar, or left the dog out with a dirty water bowl. While sometimes these situations evolve into a cruelty-type situation, very often simple neglect cases can solved by having compassionate conversations. This is what outreach groups such as Spay & Neuter Kansas City's Families Better Together Program and the HSUS Pets for Life Program have learned to do and do well.
The battle against neglect is being won with compassion, not the hammer of harsh cruelty/neglect laws.
Unfortunately, in too many communities, animal control officers are still meeting neglect cases with the hammer -- hitting already struggling pet owners with high fines and seized animals instead of helping owners provide better care for their pets.
Fortunately this is changing in some progressive communities.
In Austin, Animal Control officers are now carrying fence-building equipment in their vehicles to aid in fence repair in low-income neighborhoods, and are focusing on holistic solutions such as connecting them with low cost spay/neuter services. Washington Humane Society Chief Community Animal Welfare Officer Scott Giacoppo (Washington DC) noted last week at the Best Friends National Conference that he is working with officers to issue fewer citations, and instead "solve more problems in the living rooms than the court rooms."
While mindsets are changing in many communities, the type of training being provided to officers doesn't appear to be matching the need and demand for these types of outreach efforts.
While there is significant focus on prosecuting dog fighting (which is horrible and should be prosecuted) most officers will see maybe one potential dog fighting case in their entire career. However, they will likely encounter neglect and owners who need help with their pets on a daily or hourly basis; yet, this type of mediation has little training available on a national level.
So I wonder if it's time to rethink cruelty and neglect laws with the following proposal:
1) Separate cruelty laws from neglect laws in city statutes to recognize the difference in mindset and fine structures (allowing, of course, for severe or chronic neglect to be punishable as cruelty).
2) Change the fine structures for simple neglect so that fines for something like a dirty or tipped over water bowl are not punishable with the same fines as actually abusing an animal.
3) National organizations should provide better training for officers in mediation in the field so they are better equipped to build relationships in the field and help people resolve issues. These skills would be used daily by animal control officers in most communities whereas skills like "blood sports training", which is readily available, are seldom used by animal control officers.
It seems that if we rethink how we view cruelty and neglect, it would help us focus on the fact that the two are usually different, and need a different strategy to overcome.