Animals can be ‘victims’ just like people, Oregon Supreme Court says
A good step, but would be a great step if it included animals exploited and sacrificed for profit, including animals killed for food and fur.
In two landmark rulings earlier this month, the Oregon Supreme Court said that animals — whether they be horses, goats, dogs or cats — shall be afforded some of the same basic protections as human beings.
The dual rulings are expected to make it easier for police to rush to the aid of ailing animals without first obtaining a warrant. They also could result in harsher criminal repercussions for those found guilty of abusing or neglecting animals.
“These are hugely helpful to the prosecution of animal-cruelty cases,” said Jacob Kamins, a Corvallis-based prosecutor assigned to pursuing such cases across Oregon.
Specifically, in State v. Arnold Nix, the supreme court ruled that a Umatilla County man who was convicted of starving 20 horses and goats on his property could be sentenced — not just on one count of second-degree animal neglect — but on 20 different counts, meaning each animal counted as a separate “victim.”
For defendants in general, that could result in longer jail or prison sentences, and make it more difficult for defendants to — years later — expunge such convictions off of their criminal records.
Nix, who was 68 at the time of his arrest in 2009, argued that the ordinary meaning of “victims” doesn’t include “non-humans,” and Oregon law defines animals as the property of their human owners.
In State vs. Linda Fessenden and Teresa Dicke, the supreme court found that a sheriff’s deputy was legally justified in 2010 in rushing onto a Douglas County pasture to get medical help for a horse that was so malnourished every one of its ribs was showing. The state’s high court ruled that the deputy, who thought the horse was in immediate danger of falling and dying, didn’t need a warrant to step onto private property and get the animal to a veterinarian.
As Nix had argued, Fessenden and Dicke also argued that state law defines animals as property — and police should first have to obtain a warrant before bursting onto private property to prevent harm to property.
The high court agreed that animals are still defined by law as “property.” But the court ruled that the deputy didn’t violate the constitutional search and seizure rights of its two owners because “exigent circumstance” existed — that is that swift action was required to prevent harm to people or to property.
The deputy estimated it would take four to eight hours to obtain the warrant, and by then, it might not be possible to save the horse.
“We get calls every day from law enforcement in Oregon and other states that say ‘I need help right now. These animals are on the brink of death’ — whether it’s a hoarding case with cats or dogs in a puppy mill or horses that are starving,” said Dunn of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
“Absolutely, we recommend ‘Get a warrant if you can,’” Dunn said. “Because we don’t want to deal with these constitutional issues down the line.”
But sometimes, Dunn said, an animal’s life might be in jeopardy in the time it takes to get a warrant. Dunn said that’s why her organization is “thrilled” about the Fessenden/Dicke case.
In making its findings — some of the strongest favoring animal rights to date — the high court noted how Oregon law is evolving to reflect the sentiments of society in general.
Justice Martha Lee Walters, who wrote the Fessenden/Dicke opinion for the court, noted that household pets, such as dogs, and even a farm animal — the horse — “occupy a unique position in people’s hearts” and that’s reflected in the development of animal-welfare laws.
Walters referenced a legal fight by American attorneys trying to establish the right of a chimpanzee to sue its owner for poor living conditions, and even a zoo in India that won’t allow the exhibition of dolphins because of their advanced intelligence.
Walters also cited a 2013 study by the Animal Legal Defense Fund that ranked Oregon second and Washington seventh among states for their laws protecting animals. Among Oregon’s strengths, the study said, were laws that increase penalties if the harm to the animal happened in the presence of a child and the power of judges to require mental-health counseling.
“As we continue to learn more about the interrelated nature of all life, the day may come when humans perceive less separation between themselves and other living beings than the law now reflects,” Walters wrote. “However, we do not need a mirror to the past or a telescope to the future to recognize that the legal status of animals has changed and is changing still…”
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Our world will be truly advanced
When spirit and ethics share the same
And the different treatment of animal
And Man is finally removed.
When the laws protect all beings
On earth and recognizes that all
Have equal worth
Karen Lyons Kalmenson