Catriona MacLennan: Courts taking animal abuse lightly

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Judiciary failing to enforce Parliament's intention to treat cruelty cases more seriously with higher penalties.

Some 3-day-old puppies were the only survivors when Tony Allen Campbell and Russell Douglas Mendoza shot 33 dogs in a Warkworth quarry. The judge sentenced the two men to six months' home or community detention. Photo / Natalie Slade
Some 3-day-old puppies were the only survivors when Tony Allen Campbell and Russell Douglas Mendoza shot 33 dogs in a Warkworth quarry. The judge sentenced the two men to six months' home or community detention. Photo / Natalie Slade

Parliament provided a clear direction to the judiciary when it unanimously increased penalties for animal cruelty in 2010.

MPs from all parties voted to raise the maximum sentence for abuse of animals from three to five years' jail.

Then Agriculture Minister David Carter said during the third reading debate on the Animal Welfare Amendment Bill that the law change would send a clear message that serious offending against animals was unacceptable and would not be tolerated.

But despite politicians' strong words, the judiciary has not heeded the message.

The penalties imposed by the courts in animal welfare cases remain today - as they were before the law change - very lenient. That is so even in cases described by investigators or judges as the worst examples of animal cruelty ever seen in New Zealand.

Five examples of cases dealt with by the courts - two before the law change and three after it - provide a comparison.

In 2009, Jeffrey Hurring was sentenced to one year's jail after he killed a dog by strangling, pouring petrol and stuffing a pillow case down its throat. He then hit the dog on the head with a spade. The District Court judge said the case was at the higher end of the scale in terms of seriousness, gravity and cruelty, but still sentenced Hurring to only one-third of the maximum penalty.

On appeal, the High Court reduced the sentence to 10 months' prison.

This year, Tony Allen Campbell and Russell Douglas Mendoza were sentenced after shooting 33 dogs at a Wellsford quarry. The men were each found guilty of wilful ill-treatment of animals, the convictions relating only to the six animals on which autopsies were done.

Although the men were sentenced this year, they were sentenced under the old law as the offences occurred before the higher penalties took effect.

Judge Mary Beth Sharp said that Mendoza's shooting of the dogs had been fuelled by emotion and blood lust and it was clear the dogs had suffered painful deaths.

Yet, despite that, the men were sentenced only to six months' home detention (community detention for Mendoza) and 300 hours of community work, together with reparation of $4775. Judge Sharp observed the Crown was not seeking an order that either man should be banned from owning a dog in future. She said that she would not have granted an order in Mendoza's case as she had no doubt that he loved dogs.

Those two sentences can be compared with the penalties imposed in three cases under the new, tougher law.

In November 2010, Jason Godsiff was involved in killing 23 seals. He used a galvanised pipe to bludgeon the animals to death by inflicting crushed skulls and open wounds on them.

Judge Ian Mill described the killings as premeditated and on an unprecedented scale and sentenced Godsiff to two years' jail. However, Godsiff appealed to the High Court, which quashed the two-year prison sentence and substituted eight months' home detention.

In September this year Tjeerd Visser was sentenced to 350 hours of community work after pleading guilty to two charges of animal cruelty by failing to meet the physical needs of 125 cows which died or had to be put down after the 1300-strong herd was discovered to have little or no feed.

In October Waikato farmer Laurens Erasmus was given 10 months' home detention with judicial monitoring at three-month intervals. During milking, Erasmus repeatedly struck many cows with steel milking cups to bruise their legs. He later used his fist forcefully on the bruised areas, the abuse continuing during milking for three to four weeks.

Erasmus subsequently used a metre-long steel bar to beat the cows so that a number developed haematomas resulting in large, infected abscesses on their hind legs.

When the property was inspected in February most of the 135 cows showed obvious signs of physical injuries - 115 had broken tails, 47 of them broken in more than one place. Twenty-seven had to be put down.

The Ministry for Primary Industries described the case as the worst instance of wilful animal ill-treatment to be brought before a New Zealand court, a description that was echoed by Judge R.P. Wolff.

However, Erasmus was sentenced only to 10 months' home detention with intensive supervision, after the judge accepted he had a fragile personality and was prone to depression. The ministry had sought an order banning him from animal ownership but the judge refused this, as he said preventing Erasmus from following his chosen career would add to his psychological stress.

The ministry has filed an appeal in the Erasmus case.

These examples illustrate no discernible increase in the penalties being imposed by judges, despite the law change to toughen up sentences.

In New Zealand, fines and community work are the sentences imposed in minor criminal cases.

Accordingly, the message being sent by the lenient penalties imposed in animal welfare cases is that animals do not matter and violence against them is trivial. It is not.

We already know that New Zealand has a shocking record of family violence and child abuse. Cruelty to animals is another part of that sorry picture.

Research over more than four decades - primarily in the United States but more recently in other countries - demonstrates a link between animal cruelty and violence to humans.

In New Zealand, a joint SPCA/Women's Refuge study, Pets as Pawns: The Co-existence of Animal Cruelty and Family Violence, was published in March. Fifty-four per cent of the 203 women's refuge clients surveyed reported violent partners had threatened to kill a pet or farm animal and one-third of respondents said that an animal had been injured or killed during the relationship.

The Herald last Monday ran a story about the SPCA's Annual List of Shame, which once again recited a horrifying catalogue of animal abuse. In fact, the Herald has carried four stories about animal cruelty in less than two weeks.

The community relies on the courts to provide deterrence by imposing the appropriate sentences following conviction. At present, that is not happening in animal cruelty cases.

An appeal is required in an animal welfare case so the Court of Appeal can review the law and set "tariffs" directing lower courts as to appropriate penalties.

However, education of the judiciary is also needed so judges are made aware of the links between animal cruelty and other violence in New Zealand society.

Judges should also be making more use of the banning orders provided by the law to keep violent humans away from animals.

A particularly perturbing matter is that many of those convicted of animal welfare offences have previously been warned and given opportunities to improve their treatment of animals but have persisted in their behaviour. This appears to indicate agencies are adopting an overly lenient approach and prosecutions should be started at an earlier stage.

But even better than harsher punishments for offenders would be preventing animal abuse altogether. That will come about only when we have more respect for animals.

The SPCA's empathy programme for students, One of the Family, is a great step in that direction. The Government should support it with some funding.

Dialogue: Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- NZ Herald

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