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Are There Any Defenses to an Animal Cruelty Charge?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

In the last month, a Michigan couple was charged with animal cruelty for neglecting five horses and letting a pony die. An Alabama man pleaded guilty to misdemeanor animal cruelty for killing a neighbor's cat. And a reality television star angered fans when he tried to run over a cat with a sleigh.

With so many animal lovers demanding justice, readers may be wondering: Are there any defenses to an animal cruelty charge?

The answer, of course, depends on the circumstances of each particular case. But here are three potential animal cruelty defenses that defendants may want to consider:

1. Is the Animal Covered by the Law?

Animal cruelty laws don't apply to all animals. For example, the federal Animal Welfare Act only governs the care of warm-blooded animals. Farm animals (even warm-blooded ones) and cold-blooded animals are not protected by the act. If you are ever charged under an animal cruelty statute, check to see if the language of the statute applies to the animal in your particular case.

2. What Was the Intent of the Killing?

Animal cruelty laws vary from state to state, but most do focus on the intent of the action. Many state statutes have similar provisions against killing animals; to take one example, California's statute states, "Every person who maliciously and intentionally kills an animal ... or inflicts unnecessary cruelty upon the animal ... is, for each offense, guilty of a crime."

Notice the words "maliciously and intentionally" and "unnecessary." When considering an animal cruelty charge, a California jury must ask, "Was the action malicious and intentional? Was it unnecessary?"

While killing an animal should always be done as a last resort, sometimes it is necessary, such as euthanasia. Many state laws do allow grieving pet owners to euthanize their ailing pets to relieve the pet of suffering.

Here's another example: Somebody who accidentally runs over an animal with a car is unlikely to get charged with animal cruelty. If the driver didn't intend to hurt the animal, than the animal cruelty law probably wouldn't apply. (Although the driver may be found negligent for not driving safely.)

3. Was It Self-Defense?

While many animal cruelty laws don't specifically mention a self-defense exception, the Washington Court of Appeals recently found that the constitutional right of self-defense does apply to animal attackers. Wait, isn't that common sense? Not necessarily.

A Washington man was charged with animal cruelty in the first degree when he shot at a dog, which may or may not have been attacking him (depending on whose story you believe). The man argued that he had a right to shoot the dog because he was protecting himself. The prosecutor disagreed, contending that Washington's self-defense law only applied to a human attacker, not an animal attacker. The trial judge agreed with the prosecution and refused to allow the jury to consider the man's self-defense claim.

The appeals court, however, sided with the defendant and overturned the trial court's decision. So yes, in some cases, courts have found that you do have a right of self-defense against an attacking animal.

If you are ever charged with animal cruelty, an experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to help you determine if these animal cruelty defenses apply to your case.

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