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Getting tougher on animal cruelty

Currently, criminal sanctions for animal cruelty in England and Wales are extremely lenient and in my view totally inadequate.

A recent report found than more than 92% of offenders avoided prison in the last decade following abhorrent acts of violence against pets; we must consider the impact of these offenders slipping through the net.

As the owner of an eclectic group of pets, I support The Centre for Crime Prevention, the RSPCA, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and other animal charities, who rightly argue that the maximum custodial sentence, just 6 months, should be increased.

Britain is far laxer than other countries when it comes to bringing offenders to justice in this area. Aside from basic humanity, the reason that I find this deeply concerning is that it is well-established that individuals that cause harm to animals are often the same individuals that have a tendency towards violence against people. 

Animal cruelty frequently occurs as a precursor or indicator of a tangled web of abusive behaviour. Researchers have found that perpetrators’ first target is often an animal living in the home, the second a spouse or child. Disturbingly, offenders often threaten to torture, injure or kill the victim's pets as a mechanism through which to emotionally control and coerce human victims. 

We need to become more attune to this abuse as a warning sign in order to more effectively protect people. Animal abuse exposes a certain deliberateness of violence. Unlike crimes against people, perpetrators can rarely claim to have been provoked, to have “lost control” or fallen foul to passion. These individuals can be calculating and motivated by the control they have over defenceless animals, indicating the potential for increased violence or lethality more generally. 

There are real implications here for policing. Campaigners are calling for the creation of a register of animal cruelty offenders – similar to the sex offenders register - to better monitor the most prolific perpetrators. This could be beneficial when it comes to protecting people at risk of harm, a key pillar in my new Police & Crime Plan for Dorset, by enhancing the intelligence picture available to officers when attempting to identify perpetrators of domestic violence.

In most jurisdictions, legislation to protect victims of domestic violence, child abuse and animal abuse are considered in silos and the UK is guilty of this. In other places, the approach is far more innovative, with many US states enacting statutes to allow courts to include pets in protective orders. Some include acts of animal abuse in the statutory definition of domestic violence. 

I support the Government’s commitment to reviewing the maximum sentence for animal abusers. But this review must go further and treat the relationship between animal abuse and domestic abuse with paramount importance. 

I encourage a wide consideration of existing legislation to enhance processes based on best practice seen elsewhere. We must ask some important questions. Are there sufficient obligations placed upon statutory bodies and third sector organisations that work with victims to consider the interrelations of abuse? Can we improve the cross-reporting of abuse, be it of animals, adults or children?

I keenly await the Government’s review on this matter. 

Martyn Underhill
Dorset Police & Crime Commissioner

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