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Laws also protect feathered, furry creatures from abuse

Editor's note: This is the third of six guest columns written by Hernando County Bar Association members that will be published on this page during Law Week.

By John Keller

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2000

As we are engaged in a celebration of the law this week, we should feel extremely fortunate for all the advantages that flow to us because we live under a form of government that cherishes and protects life. We also are a society that allows us to be governed by written rules, regulations and laws that provide order and civility in an otherwise chaotic world. There are further unwritten, but historically adopted, maxims, principles and other common laws that most people live by to guide their moral lives.

These various laws are designed to protect not just humans, but animals, too. I'd like to use this opportunity to speak on a humanitarian level on behalf of those who can't speak for or adequately protect themselves. Our legislators, in response to the demands of their constituency, have passed laws specifically tailored to punish those who act with indifference to the rights of animals to live free from abuse, neglect or other mistreatment. Who can justifiably believe that our dogs, cats, horses and our other furry and feathered pals do not have the right to live free from abuse and other cruelty? During Law Week, and hopefully thereafter, I encourage us all to reflect on what animals mean to us, and our moral, legal and humanitarian duty to them.

Webster defines "humanity" as both the qualities of being human and of being humane. To be humane is to be kind, benevolent, tender and merciful. Regretfully, it appears some humans have lost sight of these qualities as they relate to "man's best friends."

We often read a newspaper or hear news reports regarding incidents of animal abuse that too often go unpunished. While there are statutes designed to protect animals, you seldom hear of the perpetrators of animal abuse being as harshly sanctioned by the law as they deserve. In my opinion, a person who is willing to take out his or her anger on a defenseless animal is only a step away from being willing to carry out the same cowardly act on a human being.

A more subtle form of animal abuse stems from our community being composed of thousands of people who have moved here from other parts of the country. Further, many residents live here part time and in another locale part time. When some of our residents head north, some pets that have likely given them numerous hours of love and affection during the winter months are abandoned to fend for themselves.

Florida statutes define the term "abandonment" as "to forsake entirely or to neglect or refuse to provide or perform the legal obligations for care and support of an animal by its owner or the owner's agent." While the statute directs that "such abandonment shall constitute the relinquishment of all rights and claim by the owner to such animal," in my opinion this is not enough.

Abandonment may be a more innocuous form of abuse, but it is abuse, nonetheless, to expect an animal who has come to rely on us for sustenance to now have to grub in the garbage in order to survive. Although the people who abandon these pets may try to convince themselves the animal will be alright, this is too often not the case unless some other human comes along and exhibits the true humanity the abandoning party lacked.

Florida Statute 828.02 defines "animal" to include every living "dumb creature." The words torture, torment and cruelty shall be held "to include every act, omission or neglect whereby unnecessary or unjustifiable pain or suffering is caused. . . ." The statutes further provide that cruelty to animals includes tormenting or depriving an animal of necessary sustenance or shelter, and such acts are punishable in a range from a misdemeanor of the first degree to a felony of the third degree, carrying a statutory maximum fine of from $1,000 to $5,000, and a potential jail sentence of from one to five years. To many animal lovers, violations of these statutes should be enforced to the maximum degree.

While the law also classifies animals as "personality, or chattels," like a piece of furniture, animal lovers know that our animals are much more than mere chattels. People who may view their pets in this regard should cuddle up with a coffee table the next time they are lonely for the affection that an animal gives unconditionally. While the statute is designed to protect an animal as a "dumb" creature, we all know that many of our animals are far from dumb creatures, and therefore the minor protections provided to them by law should be given much more credence.

Florida Statute 828.17 authorizes law enforcement officers to arrest without a warrant any person found abusing animals, and to detain them for the issuance of a warrant. The problem with the effectiveness of this provision is that people who commit atrocities against helpless animals do so generally out of the view of law enforcement personnel. It is therefore important for more compassionate people to report incidents of animal abuse or neglect.

I would like to believe that everyone would acknowledge that our animals are most assuredly deserving of our most humane considerations and protections. While there should be no need for rules of law to convince morally thinking humans to not mistreat animals, as a realist I know that we always will need such rules and sanctions. We animal lovers are not so naive to think that all people will love their animals; but, we do believe that common decency requires that all people respect the rules of law that mandate that animals be permitted to live their lives without abuse.

I encourage everyone to respect and adhere to the statutory and moral laws on animal rights and to imagine what life would be like if there were no pets. We should all make our views known to our elected representatives that we expect them to continue enacting stronger laws designed to protect our pets and other animals from the minority who have no compunction to harm them.

- John M. Keller is a partner in the law firm Keller and Merritt in Brooksville. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

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