How a Federal Anti-Animal Cruelty Statute Will Also Help Human Victims of Violence

In 2014, South Dakota became the 50th state to adopt felony-level penalties for malicious cruelty to animals. That action puts an exclamation point on the notion that opposition to the worst forms of cruelty is a universal value in the United States and that people who commit such acts deserve punishment by the state.


In 2016, in another clear expression of that national commitment, President Obama signed an executive order, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, to adopt an anti-cruelty standard for military installations, one that is on par with the states’ animal cruelty statutes. In the UCMJ, violations will be separated by “abuse, neglect, or abandonment of an animal” and “bestiality.” The maximum punishment will include bad conduct discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and jail time ranging from up to one year to up to five years, depending upon the offense.

Four times over the last 15 years, Congress has strengthened our federal laws against animal fighting, making it a federal crime to transport animals for fighting purposes, to ban possession of fighting animals, to stop shipping cockfighting instruments across state lines, and to outlaw attending or bringing a minor to an animal fighting venture.

In 2010, Congress banned the sale of videos depicting “animal crushing” and other malicious forms of cruelty. The Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act prohibited the trade in obscene video depictions of animals being crushed, burned, drowned, suffocated, impaled or subjected to other forms of heinous cruelty. The law is valuable but limited in scope, and while it bans the trade in video depictions of cruelty, it does not prohibit the underlying conduct of the cruelty itself.

That leaves one major gap in our federal animal protection framework: There is no distinct law that mirrors at least some of what the anti-cruelty statutes do in the states. Where abuse occurs on federal property, or in cases that span multiple states or other territorial jurisdictions, a federal anti-cruelty statute would allow a crackdown on cruelty. We’ve been trying to secure one for a few years. It’s called the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act.

The Senate approved the bill unanimously last year, as introduced by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., but the House did not act on it, despite a bill from Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Ted Deutch, D-Fla., that attracted a solid majority of the House (253 cosponsors).

In March, Sens. Toomey and Blumenthal reintroduced that legislation, while Reps. Smith and Deutch, along with 11 other original cosponsors, reintroduced their bill, designated as H.R. 1494 this year. On March 21, the House bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations

In May 2015, in Temecula, Californiaa U.S. Marine couple living at Camp Pendleton were accused of shattering their dog’s legs and binding his mouth with rubber bands for days. In a case like this the state can prosecute under its anti-cruelty statute, but given that the practice occurred on a U.S. military installation, it might give local prosecutors pause. That’s precisely why Congress should enact the PACT Act.

There is a raft of studies to indicate the link between cruelty to animals and violence against people:

  • Of 36 convicted multiple murderers questioned in one study, 46 percent admitted committing acts of animal torture as adolescents.
  • All seven school shootings that took place across the country between 1997 and 2001 involved boys who had previously committed acts of animal cruelty.
  • A 2002 study found that 96 percent of juveniles who had sexual conduct with animals also admitted to sex offenses against humans.

The National Sheriffs’ Association backs the PACT Act, along with a raft of other federal law enforcement agencies. So does the National Children’s Advocacy Center, a non-profit that combats child abuse and neglect.

The nation is waking up to cruelty as an indicator of social pathology. First offenders typically start on animals, and then turn their violent instincts to people. Congress should act on this legislation now. There’s no excuse for a delay. As a society, we have an unspoken pact with vulnerable creatures to protect them from needless and malicious violence, and the PACT Act is part of any good plan to act on that principle.

A version of this article was originally published on Wayne Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.

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