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Photo of Matt M. McClenahen
Photo of Matt M. McClenahen

Pennsylvania Cruelty to Animals Laws Are a Joke!

| Apr 12, 2013 | Cruelty To Animals

Pennsylvania Cruelty to Animals Laws Are a Joke!

As a criminal defense attorney, I can tell you that cruelty to animals cases are among the most difficult to defend, because defendants charged with this offense can seldom expect any sympathy from a prosecutor, judge or jury. Even grizzled defense lawyers have problems with these cases. When I was a public defender, no one in my office wanted any part of these cases, but someone had to do it.

Recently, two cruelty to animals cases made local headlines, and both cases remain unsolved. In one case, someone went onto a porch in Philipsburg and bludgeoned a cat to death with an unknown object. In a second case, two huskies were found shot to death in Boggs Township. The dogs had run off on February 18, 2013, but when their bodies were discovered on April 2, it appeared that they had been well fed, and that they had not been dead for very long, thus making it appear as if someone had taken care of them before they were shot.

What will shock some readers even more than these senseless acts of violence against beloved pets is just how minor the penalties for cruelty to animals are in Pennsylvania, despite the outrage such offenses engender in most of the public. Killing or even torturing a dog or cat to death in Pennsylvania is a mere second degree misdemeanor. It is a first degree misdemeanor to kill or harm a dog, which assists handicapped people, while it is a third degree felony to kill or harm a zoo animal. Not that one should kill a zoo animal, but I do find it strange that killing a scorpion or spider on display at a zoo is a third degree felony, yet it is a mere second degree misdemeanor to kill someone’s pet dog or cat.

A defendant with no prior record convicted of killing or maiming a pet dog or cat, stands a good chance of being sentenced to probation, and probably will not do more than 30 days in jail. Even a person with the worst possible prior record score is not going to receive a sentence of more than one to two years incarceration, even if he brutally tortures a dog or cat, and it causes extreme grief and anguish in the pet’s human companions.

I vividly remember a trial I witnessed as a law clerk, where a man decided to get even with his sister’s family by decapitating the family’s cat. He then chased his 12 year old niece while holding the cat’s severed head and taunting her. He received about six months in county jail, which was actually a “harsh” sentence under the sentencing guidelines.

Quite frankly, the animal cruelty laws in this Commonwealth are a joke. Pets are like family members to many people, and the law should reflect this reality. A college student who sells dime bags of marijuana to finance his own use is looking at jail time and felony convictions, while a sociopath who walks onto a porch and bashes a cat’s skull is guilty of a mere second degree misdemeanor. There is something seriously wrong with a crimes code, which punishes peaceful potheads more severely than a sicko who takes sadistic delight in harming pets.

Even if a prosecutor has every intention of aggressively prosecuting animals abusers, she can only go so far when she has one hand tied behind her back, due to a law, which appears to have been written by people, who did not recognize the important role pets play in people’s lives. I call upon the General Assembly to ammend the cruelty to animals statute to make the killing or torture of a cat or dog a felony.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA.


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