Defining animal abuse and welfare

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 13, 2013

ONE night in the mid-1990s, under the cover of darkness, an angry father "imagining some insult or injury done to his son by a little brown dog", viciously attacked the chained-up dog with a metal stand.

He inflicted serious injuries upon the dog. But a district court judge found that he did not show a "perverted desire to torture" it, so he was fined $500 with no jail time.

On appeal, in Public Prosecutor (PP) v Seah Kian Hock (1997), then Chief Justice Yong Pung How differed, saying that it was not just "cases of extreme depravity" involving the torture of animals that "should arouse our outrage".

Instead, "the more commonplace acts of cruelty (inflicted upon animals) by thugs like the respondent" were equally disgraceful.

Mr Seah was jailed for a month.

But apart from physical injury, what really constitutes a commonplace act of cruelty?

A recent case has shown that the judiciary believes that confining one's pet in a small place qualifies as well. Recently, a dog owner was fined $5,000 for causing his border collie named Hugo "unnecessary suffering" by confining it to his apartment patio. There, the dog was exposed to sun and rain for up to six hours a day over a period of some six months.

Under the Animals and Birds Act, any act of cruelty to an animal attracts a fine of up to $10,000, a jail term of up to 12 months, or both.

In the case, PP v Ling Chung Yee Roy (2013), three experts testified that a border collie would require a lot of exercise, and the small patio was not conducive for that. As a result, Hugo was likely to have been stressed by being thus confined for hours on end.

The Act does not define "unnecessary suffering", but the court took the view that exposing Hugo to the elements was unacceptable, even if the dog was not physically hurt or made ill.

The ruling set an important legal precedent. A person who does not injure his pet or makes it ill but provides unacceptable living conditions for it may still be said to be causing it unnecessary suffering, a crime that is punishable by law.

How did modern society and the law come to have so much concern about animals?

The rise of modern animal abuse law can be traced to the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham's arguments in the late 18th century. He believed "that all creatures capable of suffering are on an equal footing with human beings, (so) it is as immoral to inflict pain and suffering on animals as on human beings".

But it was not always so.

In mediaeval Europe, there were bizarre court trials of animals - chickens, rats, bees, gnats, and pigs - accused of crimes against humans. Dr E.P. Evans details them in his book, The Criminal Prosecution And Capital Punishment Of Animals (1906).

There was due process for the animal, which was served papers with formal charges, had counsel appointed for it, was ordered to appear in court and given a public hearing.

It was believed that Heaven would give the animal the power of speech to testify if it were innocent. The animal was held along with human prisoners in jails of the era. Sometimes, the convicted animal was given human garments to wear for its execution.

What purpose did these trials serve? Dr Evans notes an apparent religious function. There was a perceived need to remove "the pollution that, because of the crime, had 'contaminated' the community".

The fear was not that a homicidal animal was possessed by demons. Rather, it was held that if its crime went unpunished, that would somehow goad demons into possessing people or places.

The rise of science at the turn of the 19th century saw the slow demise of these unenlightened beliefs. It was replaced in popular culture by compassion towards animals, as historian Harriet Ritvo noted in her 1987 book, The Animal Estate.

While people previously saw their destiny as being subject to natural forces, they now saw how science could subjugate nature.

Once nature was brought under human control, "it could be viewed with affection and even... nostalgia". And thus the sentimental attachment to pets became widespread in Victorian England.

In 1822, the first animal cruelty law in England called the Martin's Act was passed. It was amended in 1849 and then again in 1876 to outlaw vivisection - the practice of performing operations on live animals for the purpose of experimentation or scientific research. Since the issue was close to Queen Victoria's heart, the law was assiduously enforced.

Dr Ritvo argued that this development of animal welfare law in the 19th century was also a reflection of the belief that humans had overcome nature. Previously, humans were seen as superior to animals because that was the divinely ordained order of Creation. But now that superiority was even more evident for it was human science and technology that had overcome nature.

With that victory in hand, humankind could afford to be kind and gracious towards nature. As higher beings, humans were in the position to dispense compassion and largesse. Animals were lower beings and mere recipients.

So the love for animals was premised on an elevated view of ourselves. And to this day, this attitude has changed little.

Yet studies now suggest that many animals have cognitive capabilities far in excess of what most of us imagine. Many animals can experience fear, distress and dejection while some can even demonstrate pity and mercy. Bentham was more correct than he ever knew.

If the cognitive capacities and emotional lives of animals are close to ours, then many of the ways we currently use them - whether in industrialised farming, lab experimentation or entertainment - become morally questionable. Such questions need to be asked. The answers may well shape our animal welfare jurisprudence in unanticipated ways.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 13, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to