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Shouldn't The Punishment Fit The Crime?

29/05/2015 18:16 BST | Updated 28/05/2016 10:59 BST

Barely a week goes by without there being yet another story in the media about animal cruelty. Thanks to social media, we are now regularly confronted on Twitter and Facebook news feeds by images of extreme pet neglect and abuse. Cases of cruelty towards animals seem to be increasing among our nation of animal lovers. Appalled by these acts, we discover that that the perpetrators are handed out 'suspended sentences' and not real prison time. Shouldn't the punishment fit the crime?

Two cases of suspended sentencing

In the last two weeks, two cases of extreme animal abuse have shocked the nation. One involves appalling neglect of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels by Northern Irish dog breeder Gordon Laverty. All six spaniels in Laverty's care were found to be severely malnourished, unable to stand up properly and had coats that were severely matted. Laverty, due to his clean record and guilty plea in court, was handed a ten-month suspended sentence and banned from keeping pets for twenty years.

Another case that has also united the public in its outrage is that of Stephen Woodhouse, the Northamptonshire-based Flybe pilot who drowned his neighbour's Border Terrier in a bucket of water because he'd been annoyed by its barking. Callously, Woodhouse dumped the poor dog's body in a hedgerow, only to return the day after to bloodthirstily hack out its microchip in order to cover his tracks. When his neighbours were searching frantically for their beloved pet dog, Woodhouse kept up the pretence of ignorance, only handing himself in after they became increasingly suspicious. Woodhouse was also given a suspended sentence; in his case, a meagre 12 weeks, suspended for two years.

So what is a suspended sentence?

A suspended sentence is issued when an individual is convicted of a crime and given a sentence to serve for that crime; however, the person will not have to serve that sentence immediately and may never have to serve it at all. It essentially means that an individual has been found guilty of an offence but provided that he/she refrains from certain activities - i.e. keeping pets - they will not have to serve prison time. If the sentencing provisions are infringed during the duration of the 'suspension', they will be sent to prison for the time that was suspended.

Why are sentences so lenient?

The problem with too lenient sentencing in cases of extreme animal abuse or neglect can be put down to the fact that pets are regarded in law as 'chattels' or property. They do not have 'personhood' and thus are deemed to have only the basic rights of food, shelter and good welfare - as defined by the Animal Welfare Act (2006). Section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act places a duty of care on people to ensure they take reasonable steps in all the circumstances to meet the welfare needs of their animals to the extent required by good practice.

Interestingly, attorneys in New York are currently arguing in court that two chimps should be given the legal distinction of personhood. Hercules and Leo are at the centre of a landmark case and their attorneys from the Nonhuman Rights Project say they are unlawfully imprisoned at New York University and are asking the court to free them. Steven Wise, head attorney for the chimps, says they are "autonomous and self-determined beings" who deserve freedom of their bodies. The Nonhuman Rights Project is seeking to have Hercules and Leo removed from their university housing and moved to a chimp sanctuary in Florida. The defence has said that, if successful, the case could open the floodgates to applications for personhood on behalf of zoo and companion animals.

There are basic protections in the UK as outlined in the Animal Rights Act, unlike in other jurisdictions such as Denmark. Last week, a live baby rabbit was killed on air to demonstrate the "hypocrisy" of animal rights campaigners who eat meat from supermarkets. Radio24syv presenter Asger Juhl was hosting a live debate when he reportedly hit nine-week-old rabbit Allan with a bicycle pump to demonstrate his thinking. Alarmingly, the presenter seems to have been endorsed by the radio station.

A statement from the radio station reads: "We ensured that we killed the rabbit in a sound manner, in accordance with very precise instructions that were given to us by a zookeeper- so the rabbit did not suffer any harm. It is not our wish to offend anyone with this debate. And we regret that many people have misunderstood our message. But we hope that this heated debate creates better conditions for animals in Danish agriculture."

Of course, Denmark was only last year at the wrong end of public interest over its animal welfare record in the case of the controversial killing of Marius the giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo.

That doesn't mean that because other countries have poor records on animal welfare, we should hold our heads high. Even if the courts are hampered by legal definitions of personhood or otherwise, they do have the freedom to mete out stronger sentences. As the public backlash over recent horrific animal cruelty cases has proven, there is an appetite for stronger sentencing.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we, as a country, were to badge ourselves as a nation of true animal lovers by ensuring that the punishment fits the crime in such cases? Appropriate sentencing would then act as a real deterrent for those so minded to harm innocent creatures.

Marie Carter is the Editor and Publisher of Pets Magazine, a unique leading lifestyle magazine for pet owners, with a monthly readership of 24,000. She also runs specialist PR, Content-generation & Marketing & Digital Publishing Services for the Pet Industry - more details at Pets Magazine's website.