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Protecting the most vulnerable: A proposed law to create animal advocates

Protecting the most vulnerable: A proposed law to create animal advocates

Reportedly one of 11 dogs found living in squalid conditions in Chicago, Ill. was a dog named Braveheart. He was a pitbull that had a swollen muzzle, bite wounds all over her body, and a mutilated right ear. The other dogs had visible scaring on their faces and forepaws. 

Although Braveheart’s owner reportedly had a previous animal cruelty conviction, he reportedly negotiated a plea deal that reduced the charges from seven counts of felony cruel treatment to one count of misdemeanor animal cruelty and sentenced him to only 18 months of probation. 

The fate of Braveheart led to the creation of Braveheart’s Law. To address the lack of representation of abused animals, Illinois Rep. Allen Skillicorn (R) late last year introduced House Bill 3995, which “provides that in a prosecution of a case involving the injury, health, safety, of a cat or dog, the court may appoint a special advocate to assist the court and represent the interests of justice regarding the health or safety of the cat or dog.” 

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As an animal law scholar and director of a university animal law center, I closely follow trends in how legislation and court decisions handle cases of animal abuse and neglect. Braveheart’s case focuses attention once again on the difficulty of bringing such cases to a successful conclusion, both for society and for the animals themselves.

Braveheart and her fellow rescued dogs languished for months as her abuser’s case wound its way through the courts. This delay, of course, increased her suffering and delayed her placement in a loving, permanent home.

The new bill recently referred to the Rules Committee, requires the Illinois Department of Agriculture to compile a list of pro bono attorneys and law students who may serve as special advocates for these cases. 

The goal of this proposed legislation is to provide a voice for the voiceless, namely cats and dogs that have been abused or neglected by their owners.

Animal cruelty is a serious problem throughout society, but the full extent of it is unknown; the FBI did not begin collecting data specifically identifying animal crimes until 2016. The FBI reports that the full pattern of animal abuse cases will not emerge until 2020 or later. 

Statistical and anecdotal evidence indicates that children who abuse animals often migrate to adult violent crime. Animal abusers are five times more likely to harm humans than non-animal abusers. Animal abusers are frequently not punished severely for their heinous acts. Many escape with light sentences involving fines and probation. 

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Although the state’s attorneys are charged with prosecuting animal cruelty cases, their resources are limited, and the desire to make a plea deal to end the case is overwhelming. Because the victims of these crimes cannot speak for themselves, it is essential to have a court-appointed advocate to represent the injured or killed animals.

The proposed Braveheart’s Law, which has bipartisan support in the Illinois General Assembly, is modeled on Desmond’s Law, which went into effect in Connecticut on Oct. 1, 2016. 

Desmond’s Law was inspired by a dog that was beaten, starved, and killed by his owner. 

Despite the prosecutor’s recommendation for at least some prison time, Desmond’s abuser received “accelerated rehabilitation.” 

Through accelerated rehabilitation, offenders are allowed to have their crimes expunged from their records after completing a court-ordered program. 

Under Desmond’s law, trial courts may appoint volunteer attorneys and supervised law students to act as advocates in cases of cruelty to dogs or cats.

In addition to providing advocates for abused animals, legislation like Braveheart’s Law and Desmond’s Law allow law students to gain hands-on experience in criminal litigation from the initial hearings to the trial phase to sentencing. 

Student advocates do factual and legal research, engage in written and oral advocacy, and gain the satisfaction of pursuing justice for defenseless creatures.

Opponents of these laws have argued that they interfere with the property rights of an animal’s owner and would establish some kind of legal standing for animals that have never before been recognized. 

Yet it is apparent in the U.S. legal system that animals have become far more than ordinary property. 

At the very least, they are living property — the property that is owed a fiduciary responsibility.

To be sure, our society has many pressing issues on which to spend its resources — affordable health care, better educational opportunities, protection of the environment, to name a few. 

Why should we expend our limited time, effort, and money on animals?

Yet, philosophers have long recognized that the true measure of a society is how it treats the most vulnerable —children, the elderly, and animals.

As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. I hold that the more helpless a creature the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of humankind.”

Arguably, children and the elderly may have some family members to speak for them even if they cannot. Animals, in many cases, have no one.

The Illinois General Assembly needs to enact House Bill 3995 to create a court-appointed system of advocates in animal cruelty cases. Illinois would then join the small but growing number of states acknowledging the need for animal representation in such cases.

Margit (Maggie) Livingston is Vincent de Paul Professor of Law, DePaul University, Director of the DePaul Center for Animal Law and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.