New Supreme Court Case Threatens Legal Protections for Animals
Law & Policy•5 min read
When Congress passed the PACT Act in November, President Trump led Americans to believe that all animal cruelty is now illegal. But the new protections are riddled with loopholes.
Words by Shad Clark
2019 drew to a close with a seeming victory for animals. Thanks to the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act, signed on November 25, animal cruelty purportedly became a federal felony. The new law was lauded by news outlets and social media, as it appeared that animal abusers would finally be punished with something stronger than an offhand slap on the wrist. A celebrated quote—unknown in origin though often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi—asserts that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” By that aspirational standard, an outright ban on animal cruelty would make America not just great (again?) but greater than ever before. Looking past the rave headlines to see that the PACT Act only mentions “animal cruelty” in its title, suddenly the celebration of the United States as a cruelty-free nation feels tragically premature.
Introduced in January 2019 by Florida Congressmen Ted Deutch and Vern Buchanan, the PACT Act expands on the 2010 Crush Video Prohibition Act, which made it a federal crime to distribute animal snuff films—known as “crush videos.” Despite good intentions, the 2010 law failed to criminalize the underlying acts of violence against animals. Animal abusers previously faced federal prosecution for selling and distributing animal crush videos, but not for actually “crushing” animals. Even with bipartisan support, it has taken lawmakers nine years to close this gaping loophole.
“Animal cruelty. This is something that should’ve happened a long time ago and it didn’t,” said President Trump at the bill-signing ceremony. “Why hasn’t [this] happened a long time ago? […] Because Trump wasn’t President.” Trump wasn’t the only one to heap praise upon Trump. At the same bill signing ceremony, Rory Diamond, CEO of K9s for Warriors, a nonprofit organization that pairs service dogs with veterans suffering from PTSD, said, “In one stroke of the pen, the President has done more to protect animals and stop animal cruelty in America than anyone in history.” Congressman Deutch released his own statement, claiming, “With President Trump signing the PACT Act, animal cruelty is no longer just unacceptable, it is now illegal. We can now finally say that animal abuse is a federal crime in the United States.” These men are all talking about the same President whose administration covers up animal cruelty cases, slackens slaughterhouse regulations, and allows wealthy hunters to kill and dismember endangered species. Trump doesn’t even like dogs. Despite the President’s dismal track record, it doesn’t take an animal lover—or even just a dog lover—to find crush videos indefensible or, in the President’s own words, “totally unacceptable in a civilized society.”
The problem with the PACT Act isn’t that it criminalizes animal cruelty and torture as depicted in crush videos; the problem is that the Act only criminalizes animal cruelty and torture as depicted in crush videos. The offenses defined by the law are limited to “Crushing” and the “Creation of Animal Crush Videos.” While no animal should suffer being part of a snuff film, crush videos are hardly the only or most pervasive form of animal cruelty. Crush videos and certain other abuses are already covered under various anti-cruelty laws enacted in all fifty states, and the PACT Act extends no additional protections. The new federal law “does not apply with regard to any conduct, or a visual depiction of that conduct, that is […] customary and normal […] agricultural husbandry, or other animal management practice; the slaughter of animals for food; hunting, trapping, fishing, a sporting activity not otherwise prohibited by Federal law, predator control, or pest control; [or] medical or scientific research.” The so-called Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act categorically denies protections to the overwhelming majority of animals facing many of the worst forms of cruelty and torture.
Crushing, burning, drowning, suffocating, impaling, and other forms of “serious bodily injury”—these specific cruelties are prohibited by the PACT Act, but only in the context of crush videos. These same cruelties (and more) are suffered en masse every day by animals on farms and in slaughterhouses, in research facilities, and in places where animals “invade” human habitats. On hog farms, workers routinely crush the heads of piglets who don’t fatten up fast enough. On egg farms, workers burn off the tips of birds’ beaks. Also on egg farms, male chicks are routinely crushed or suffocated. Fish, too, are suffocated when removed from water—for fish, death by suffocation can take a (torturous) hour. In laboratories, animals are subjected to all manner of inhumane experiments, including drowning and near-drowning. Though banned in over a hundred countries (including Iraq and China) and a number of states, the U.S. federal government still allows hunters and trappers to target fur-bearing and “nuisance” animals with body-crushing traps. Even the government’s own Wildlife Services uses body-crushing traps, cyanide bombs, and ranged attacks to annually exterminate wild—and often endangered—animals. Over a million wild animals are massacred each year, all to protect the economic interests of ranchers. Wildlife Services is even known to kill family pets and experiment on stray dogs. Whenever animals are seen as nuisances or as profitable commodities, “serious bodily injury” is the rule rather than the exception.
The crush video trade, however large it may be, is minuscule compared with the more popular and accepted forms of animal cruelty—especially animal agriculture. According to its own estimates, the U.S. meat industry “processes” over eight billion land animals per year. Counting fish and shellfish, the annual death toll from U.S. animal agriculture swells to over 55 billion creatures. While such monstrous numbers may be hard to fathom, consider that there are only 7.7 billion people in the world, of which only 329 million live in the U.S. American meat production ends more lives in one year than there are people on Earth, and Americans eat more meat than the people of any other country. Most of the eight billion land animals killed by the American meat industry are consumed by Americans; the U.S. exports only 13 percent of processed cows, 18 percent of processed chickens, and 27 percent of processed pigs. Despite already-staggering kill numbers, the meat industry wants America and the world to keep eating more animals, as its brand of commercialized animal cruelty makes a financial killing to the tune of $1.02 trillion a year.
With that much money, the animal agriculture industry and its lobbying arms can afford to influence politicians in Washington, D.C. Reported campaign contributions in 2019 alone include $7.5 million from dairy, $4.6 million from meat processing, $3.1 million from livestock, $1.3 million from poultry and eggs, and $1.1 million from pork. In return for donating big dollars, “Big Meat” expects big favors. Though U.S. Dietary Guidelines are purportedly designed to help prevent disease, meat lobbyists have a history of pressuring Congress to downplay the risks of meat consumption. As voters become more concerned with climate change, Big Meat is lobbying to bury the science that links animal agriculture to a whopping 60 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Big Meat also pushes lawmakers to compromise the health and safety of slaughterhouse workers and, of course, animals. To ensure that consumers remain blind to its (mis)treatment of animals, Big Meat further lobbies for ag-gag laws—many of which, ironically, criminalize the filming of animal cruelty only when the intent is to document and expose animal abuse. Considering Big Meat’s muscle, it might seem likely that the industry had a hand in gutting the PACT Act.
Even the original draft of the PACT Act only addresses crush videos. Lawmakers Deutch and Buchanan were clearly aware of all the more obvious and prevalent forms of animal cruelty and torture, as they explicitly exempted hunting and fishing, farming, slaughter, animal research, and most other forms of animal abuse. With such flagrant disregard for billions of animals, the lawmakers’ use of the all-inclusive phrase “animal cruelty” reads like glib marketing at best. Just as the PVLUOACTTMPHNEHO Act doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, the Preventing Very Little and Unquestionably Objectionable Animal Cruelty and Torture That Most People Have Never Even Heard Of Act fails to inspire the same effusive praise and accolades.
While the celebrations are premature, the passage of the PACT Act is a good first step. As the President said and as the nation seems eager to agree upon, “Animal cruelty [is] totally unacceptable in a civilized society. ” To fulfill the shared ambition of living in a strikingly civilized and truly great society, we each have to hold politicians, lawmakers and ourselves accountable. Our elected officials are only in power as long as we support them; the same goes for the food conglomerates that have built empires by industrializing animal abuse. To ban animal cruelty, we need to vote accordingly—not only at the ballot box but with our dollars. Each one of us is already empowered to prevent animal cruelty and torture at least three times per day. Consider this food for thought when you choose your next meal.
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