Cruelty Against Wildlife – The Tension in Our Laws

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Every few weeks, an act of cruelty against a wild animal makes the news, prompting fresh outrage from both animal advocates and people who simply respect wildlife. Most recently, a Northern California man shot and killed a deer and her fawn after they ate some of his landscaping. In South Carolina, a group of teens beat an opossum to death with a baseball bat and posted the video online evidently thinking it was humorous. These incidents are upsetting but not necessarily surprising considering our wildlife laws.

It’s easy to forget that hunting and trapping is legal in all 50 states. That seems like an obvious thing to state but our indignation over publicized killings of wildlife suggests that many of us forget this. Trapped and hunted animals routinely die slow, painful deaths, not much different from the animals in the stories above.

Animals caught in leghold or conibear traps suffer severely. Think about how painful it is to get a papercut or slap your finger in a door. An animal caught in a trap experiences that pain 100-fold. And animals caught in box traps are frequently left for hours or even days unattended while they starve or suffer in the cold or heat. While many states require these traps be checked every 24 hours, a handful of states have no requirement that trappers check traps. It’s legal to let a raccoon or fox starve or freeze to death. With laws like these, it might be preferable to die in a matter of hours like the deer and her baby in Northern California.

Recently, Vermont legislators considered whether to extend the amount of time that people may trap (and kill) otters every year. It was a contentious debate with many people voicing opposition to the extension. Unfortunately, the committee voted to extend the season despite the outcry from Vermont residents. One legislator explained that most people who contacted him were against the extension. But Rep. Michael Yantchka ultimately voted for it explaining to a local news website that “he sets traps for rodents at his house and eats meat” so “the whole idea of whether we value wildlife and whether we value animal life is kind of moot in my opinion.” While his vote was still disappointing (certainly he could still support a small measure that provides otters more protection), his words give us something to think about.

It uncovers the deeper issue about the conflicts within animal advocacy. It’s not uncommon for a Trap-Neuter-Return group to hold a presentation and serve animal products to attendees or for an animal shelter to raise money for its dogs and cats at a BBQ restaurant that serves dead pigs. The fate of a few animal species is tied up in the fate of all animals. It’s difficult to push our state legislatures to pass laws that harshly punish people who kill a doe and her baby while we ignore other animals.

In Colorado, after the Boulder County District Attorney chose to dismiss cruelty charges against a student who beat a baby raccoon to death, captured the issue well, “There’s a tension between the fact that we have animal cruelty statutes but also permit hunting. If you’re going to have a statute that prohibits torture and needless killing of an animal but that same statutory scheme also permits Colorado Parks and Wildlife to license people to kill animals at certain times, the law needs to do a better job of sorting out that tension between those competing philosophies.”

It doesn’t make sense to only prosecute specific crimes against individual wild animals yet tolerate systematic killing. Though it feels overwhelming to tackle the larger issue, we can take small steps in the meantime. We can tell our state legislators that we do want changes in the wildlife regulations that provide more protections for wildlife, even if it contradicts with the state’s overall approach. And we can choose to use deterrents and find ways to co-exist with our backyard wildlife instead of hiring someone to remove and kill them. Finally, in the next few months, we will be releasing a comprehensive report about how each state protects (or rather fails to protect) some of our most common native wildlife species with additional action tips.

It’s time to overhaul the whole system. Together, we can do it.

Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Holtz is For All Animals’ director of legislative affairs. She is an animal rights attorney and lifelong animal advocate. Liz manages For All Animals’ coalition efforts to pass state laws that protect animals—like strengthening anti-cruelty laws—and defeating laws that harm animals—like ag-gag laws. She also oversees For All Animals’ Attorney at Paw program, which provides assistance to advocates interested in passing laws and ordinances that protect animals on a local level.