Disaster & Cruelty

Bringing All Appropriate Charges

Cruelty and fighting are often more than "animal cases"

Although cruelty to animals is a crime in every state, in most jurisdictions, a conviction for animal cruelty or animal fighting does not carry penalties as serious as those imposed for other violent crimes. As a result, law enforcement agencies, already stretched to the limit, may be hard pressed to devote their scant resource to crimes against animals.

Often, though, cruelty and fighting offenses involve commission of other crimes that can be as serious, if not more serious, than the animal related crime.

Looking at a cruelty or fighting investigation in a more holistic fashion, not just as an "animal case," can help law enforcement identify and bring all appropriate charges.

Being armed with additional criminal charges is a powerful tool for the prosecution in every facet of the case: at plea bargain negotiations, during trial, and at the sentencing phase, where aggravating factors can justify more severe punishment for the abuser.

In considering other appropriate charges to bring in these cases, it is important to focus not just on those that most readily come to mind, such as illegal drugs, weapons and gambling offenses which do seem to often go hand in hand with fighting enterprises. In addition to these charges, many other crimes may be just as relevant in your case, including those that focus on the property status of the animal, health and safety threats to the community, and risks to children and other vulnerable members of society.

Property Offenses
Offenses Involving Injury or Threatened Injury to People
Professional Licensure Violations
Miscellaneous Laws
Additional Resources

Property Offenses

This is one area where animals can actually benefit from the fact that they are still considered property under the law in every state. Damaging, destroying or stealing property belonging to another is a crime. So, if a defendant has injured, killed or stolen an animal that belongs to someone else he or she may be guilty of crimes other than just animal cruelty.

  • Criminal Mischief, Criminal Damage, Malicious Mischief

    These are all crimes with a common element: they all make it illegal to damage or destroy property, including animals, that belongs to someone else. Typically, the level of the crime increases for property with greater market value. Unfortunately, many pets that have enormous non-economic value to their families may not have substantial "market value." But purebred dogs and cats and livestock may meet higher market value thresholds, elevating these "mischief" offenses to felonies in many states.

    So, when an owned animal is injured or killed, it may be appropriate to charge criminal mischief (or criminal damage or malicious mischief, depending on your state law) in addition to charging misdemeanor or felony animal cruelty.
  • Arson

    Arson is a felony offense that involves setting fire to real or personal property. The seriousness of the arson charge usually depends upon the type of property involved. Was the fire set in a residence or dwelling? Were there people inhabiting the residence at the time?

    Some of the worst types of cruelty cases have involved setting fire to animals. Wherever this terrible act occurs, it will likely constitute arson or a related "burning" offense under applicable state law. And, if it occurs within a dwelling or residence, the crime may be elevated to a more serious felony, thereby calling for more severe punishment.

    Young people who set fires, whether to real property or to animals, should be of particular concern to law enforcement. Early age fire setting is widely considered an indicator of future violent crime against human victims. There have been several successful felony arson prosecutions of juvenile offenders who burned animals in states that did not have felony animal cruelty laws in effect at the time that these offenses were committed.
  • Larceny/Theft

    Stealing property that belongs to another person is larceny or theft, which is a crime in every state. Like mischief offenses, larceny can be a misdemeanor or felony depending upon the market or replacement value of the property taken.

    Theft provisions apply to animals just as they do to any other item of personal or real property. Again, pets that are not purebred may not reach the dollar threshold set in many states to elevate larceny from a misdemeanor to a felony. But in even in these cases, you should bring the misdemeanor theft charge. It may be the only applicable charge if the stolen animal was not also injured or killed.

    Some states have designated theft of certain animals as felony offenses, regardless of the market value of the animal.
    • In Louisiana, for example, theft of a pet dog is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine up to $3,000, regardless of the value of the dog.
    • In Mississippi, theft of livestock is a felony offense. And in Arizona, stealing a dog for dog fighting purposes is a felony regardless of the value of the dog.
  • Trespass and Burglary

    Entering the property of another without permission is trespass in most states. Entering someone else's property with intent to commit a crime is the more serious felony offense of burglary.

    State laws differ as to whether a "breaking" is necessary along with "entering." Even in states that require "breaking," many employ a low standard of proof to meet that requirement (for example. minimum use of force, such as pushing open a door is enough). And like many arson statutes, burglary laws often distinguish between the types of premises being violated, reserving the more serious crimes for residences or dwellings, especially those that are occupied at the time of the unlawful entry.

    In many states, it is burglary even when the perpetrator enters the property with the intent to commit one crime but ends up committing another. For example, a New York case involved a boyfriend and girlfriend who shared an apartment. They split up; the boyfriend moved out and had no right to reenter the premises. He returned when his ex wasn't home with the intent to take her stereo. When he arrived, he discovered that his ex had adopted a kitten. He threw the kitten out the window, killing it.

    In addition to the cruelty charge, the prosecutor was able to bring burglary charges against this defendant. In New York, entering or remaining unlawfully on premises with intent to commit a crime is burglary. It does not matter that the ex boyfriend entered with intent to commit one crime- larceny, but ended up committing another crime - animal cruelty. In defining burglary under their own laws, many other states follow the New York example and do not require that the crime the defendant intended to commit match the crime he ends up committing.

Offenses Involving Injury or Threatened Injury to People

  • Assault

    Assault crimes generally involve intentionally causing injury to another person. The level of the offense typically increases from a misdemeanor to a felony based upon the seriousness of the injury inflicted and also often on the manner of inflicting that injury. For example, in many states, assault with a "dangerous instrument" or a "deadly weapon" is a more serious offense. In Arizona, "aggravated assault" is a class 3 felony and involves committing an assault with the use of a dangerous instrument, which is defined as any item that under the circumstances in which it is used is readily capable of causing death or serious physical injury.

    Seemingly innocuous objects have been deemed "dangerous instruments," including a handkerchief used to strangle a murder victim and a boot used to stomp on the chest of an unsuspecting assault victim. An animal used or attempted to be used to attack another person could likewise qualify as a "dangerous instrument." Some states, such as Arizona, expressly make it a crime to commit an "assault with a vicious animal."

    In states that use aggravating factors to justify imposition of longer prison terms, use of a "dangerous instrument" or "deadly weapon" in the commission of the offense is often considered an "aggravator" warranting imposition of heightened penalties.

    State and local dangerous dog or vicious animal laws may also be useful tools to law enforcement when animals are used to guard or attack law enforcement, or when they are trained to be vicious or to bite. These additional charges (sometimes civil and sometimes criminal in nature) can be especially important in cases where
    • Charging cruelty may not be appropriate (e.g. the animals themselves have not been injured)
    • Dogs are trained to fight or for inappropriate "guarding" activity
    • "Exotics," such as venomous snakes, primates or big cats, are kept as pets
  • Terrorist Threats

    Harming or threatening to harm an animal for the purpose of coercing, intimidating or controlling another person, has been deemed a "terrorist threat" in some recent cases. Although the precise definition varies from state to state, generally a terrorist threat involves threatening to commit a violent crime for the purpose of terrorizing another or to cause public panic.

    Some states laws are very narrow, meaning the threat must be very specific and direct, while other states adapt a looser approach, allowing even negligently made threats to be prosecutable. If an individual threatens to "get you and your little dog too!" and causes harm to the animal, this may constitute a terrorist threat in addition to animal cruelty.
  • Endangerment Laws

    States make unlawful a variety of offenses that include causing or permitting risks to the physical and mental well being of children, elderly or disabled people, and other people in general. These "endangerment" provisions make it a crime for a caregiver to fail to provide adequate supervision or services necessary to maintain physical and mental health. Some of these laws include contributing to the neglect or delinquency of a minor and make it a crime to fail to act to prevent such neglect or a child's involvement in unlawful activity.

    Endangerment laws are a powerful tool for investigators in cruelty and fighting cases:
    • Hoarders with too many animals living in deplorable conditions may also have children or elderly people residing in the same household along with the caked feces, the ammonia stench and the urine soaked floors.
    • Those engaged in animal fighting activities may have more than just potentially dangerous animals on the premises. There may also be drug paraphernalia, weapons and gambling activity, which themselves endanger children who are exposed to them.
    • In many fighting enterprises, children are present during training and fighting activities, making them a part of the illegal enterprise and hence "contributing to the delinquency of a minor."
  • Introduction/Spread of Disease

    A variety of state laws prohibit bringing into the state or selling within the state animals with diseases that pose a threat to other animals or to people. These laws are useful in cases where breeders, pet stores, or even shelters or individuals import into the state, sell, or offer for sale diseased animals, or where diseased livestock is transported, sold or offered for sale.

Professional Licensure Violations

Every state has its own law defining the practice of veterinary medicine and delineating those activities which may be lawfully performed only by a licensed veterinarian. Violation of these laws often constitutes a felony offense.

In many states, the practice of veterinary medicine is defined quite broadly to include everything from administering vaccinations, conducting any form of treatment or diagnosis of a condition or injury, to performing surgical procedures. Certain procedures that can lawfully be done by a lay people to animals they own (e.g. administering vaccinations, other medications) may be crimes if done for a fee to animals owned by someone else.

Animal fighters, who perform treatments, such as administering injections, stitching wounds, cropping dog's ears or tails, may be practicing veterinary medicine without a license.

Breeders, pet dealers, even shelter employees or rescue group volunteers who are not licensed veterinarians, who dock tails or crop the ears of dogs in their custody or who administer vaccinations or worming medication to animals that no longer belong to them (after the sale or adoption) may also run afoul of these laws.

Miscellaneous Laws

A variety of local laws covering everything from zoning regulations and building code restrictions to dog control ordinances (license, rabies inoculation, "at large" laws) and provisions prohibiting creation of a public or private "nuisance", are also important to consider when you are conducting a cruelty or animal fighting investigation.

In many scenarios, such as potential hoarding situations, or allegedly inhumane slaughter of animals in a residential area for religious purposes, violations of these local laws can be used to secure a voluntary surrender of animals even before criminal charges are brought or considered.

Enlisting the assistance of other agencies, including the health department, social service agencies, animal control, a licensed veterinarian and your local humane society in these efforts often helps achieve the best result for both the animal victims and the community.


Investigating and prosecuting animal cruelty and animal fighting cases is both challenging and rewarding work. Law enforcement agencies committed to effectively handling these cases still face resource and fiscal constraints that demand most of their attention focus on serious violent crimes against human beings.

Identifying and bringing the full range of appropriate charges, not just those that are animal related, can help law enforcement by:

  • justifying making animal crimes a priority
  • providing the prosecution with invaluable assistance in achieving an appropriate disposition of a case that among other social ills, involves the needless suffering of animal victims

Additional Resources

Stacy Wolf, Esq., is ASPCA Vice President & Chief Legal Counsel, Humane Law Enforcement.