Defining animal abuse and welfare

Defining animal abuse and welfare

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.

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