Silence of the Lambs: Britain and animal abuse

(Photo source: DogTime)

By James Burkett – Junior Editor

Warning: This article contains discussions of animal abuse and includes cases of animal cruelty that some readers may find distressing.

1997 was a landmark year for animal rights activists. In the Treaty of Amsterdam, the European Union finally recognised animal as sentient beings with thoughts and emotions of their own. The act, in an attempt to better protect other forms of life, declared that states must “recognise that animals are sentient beings that are able to subjectively feel and perceive the world around them.” 

Since then, more and more countries have made huge strides towards protecting animals from harm. From introducing prison sentences to banning ownership of animals, legal systems across the world have slowly grown more and more against animal cruelty. However, even with this success, national and international movements alike still deal with an overwhelming number of cases every year. The RSPCA alone handled almost 150,000 cases of animal abuse in 2017, up from 5% in 2016 and equating to an average of 1 call every 27 seconds. In 2019, this figure was 130,700 complaints of animal abuse, yet only 1,678 convictions were made. 

Even more disturbing is the UK’s apathy towards it. The United Kingdom has a long and mixed track record with animal abuse. Despite being one of the first to acknowledge animal sentience, its standards of protection have at times been sub-par. According to the World Animal Protection Index, the UK is a C in regards to recognising animal sentience, a B for laws against animal suffering, and a D for protecting animals used in farming. More worryingly, the UK has a C rating both for animals used in scientific research, putting it far behind most other European countries like Germany and France and, disturbingly, behind countries with poor animal rights like Turkey, where animal abuse is punished with a mere fine. 

Though the UK averages a B on the Animal Index and is among the best overall, its laws are sadly little more than a formality. In March 2016, brothers Andrew and Daniel Frankish (22 and 19, respectively), horrifically attacked their family bulldog, leaving it crippled, in constant pain, and unable to use its hind legs after the attack, forcing its owners to put it to sleep 3 months later. The leaked footage, discovered on an old SD card, was then used to prosecute them. 

Their punishment? 21 weeks in prison, suspended for 2 years. 

And they are not the only ones getting off with little more than a slap on the wrist. Richard Finch and Michael Heathcock (60 and 59, respectively) murdered their elderly dog, Scamp. The brutal murder, which the pair claimed was done out of “mercy”, was taken to court and sentenced to four months in prison, a lifetime ban on keeping animals, and a total of £315 in fines. 

The problem here is that this is not going far enough. Over the last two years, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill has failed to gain any real momentum in the House of Commons. Despite widespread support, the bill has been repeatedly delayed or suspended for readings because of national and international incidents, from Brexit to 2019’s snap election. The bill, aimed at introducing tougher punishments for animal abusers, would allow judges to sentence criminals up to five years in prison, a huge step-up from the current six-month sentencing guideline. However, with the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, there are renewed fears that the bill could be delayed yet again, and at a time when the RSPCA and other systems are stretched to their thinnest. With fears that leaving the European Union could deprive animals of key welfare laws and the needs of animals taking a backseat to other international events, it is more important than ever for legislators and groups to work together to protect animals wherever they are. 

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