In the eye of the beholder

Last June, James M. Sandlin shot a stray dog four times and nearly hacked its head off with an ax.

The killing outraged animal lovers and prompted the Buncombe County district attorney’s office to prosecute the Fairview man on a charge of felony cruelty to animals. After the case ended in a mistrial last month, Sandlin was retried on April 4 and was convicted of the felony charge.

But had the animal in question been wild, it’s unlikely that Sandlin would have been charged with cruelty to animals, legal experts say.

“If it had been a deer in hunting season, it would not have been animal cruelty,” explains Ben Loeb, a professor at the Institute of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill, who’s studied the state’s animal laws. “If you’re unlucky enough to be a deer, you haven’t got much protection.”

So why does the law treat some animals differently than others? On a fundamental level, the answer seems to lie in the way our society views the animal world. Humans have developed a complex — and sometimes contradictory — relationship with animals. And like many human relationships, this one smacks of possession, loyalty, love, fear and power.

What the law leaves out

North Carolina’s animal-cruelty law, like those in other states, doesn’t apply to the “lawful taking of animals” under the regulation of the Wildlife Resources Commission — in other words, hunting. Nor does the law apply to biomedical research, livestock production, veterinary work, or destroying animals to protect the public health (see box). That leaves pets as the only category of animals that really gets much legal protection.

A dog can’t legally be killed except to prevent immediate harm to property, a person or another animal, Assistant District Attorney Don Gast argued during Sandlin’s trial. Nor can a dog be killed for a trivial offense, such as digging up someone’s flower bed.

In contrast, game animals may be killed for food or sport.

“There’s been an established hunting season in North Carolina forever, and if you said it was cruelty to animals to shoot a deer … you’re outlawing hunting in North Carolina,” explains Maj. Kenneth Everhart of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Enforcement Division.

North Carolina’s game laws do address cruelty indirectly, he notes. For example, it’s illegal to possess a live wild animal, which would prohibit someone from wounding a deer in the leg and hauling it around in the back of his pickup truck.

And even apart from the law, the rules of good sportsmanship require hunters to know their weapon and skill level well enough to make a “quick, clean kill,” rather than wounding a deer that then runs off into the woods and suffers, says Everhart.

Felony cruelty laws

The General Assembly recently beefed up the state’s animal-cruelty law by classifying severe forms of abuse as felonies. The statute took effect in January 1999; Sandlin was the first person tried for the offense in Buncombe County. Twenty-seven states now allow felony charges, which are more likely to result in jail time, according to The Humane Society of the United States.

“Nowadays, it’s very difficult to get any kind of an active sentence for a misdemeanor,” notes Loeb.

The decision to strengthen the law heartened members of The Humane Society, which had lobbied for the change. Besides stiffer penalties, convicted felons are monitored more closely than those convicted of misdemeanors, adds Laura Wasson, senior legal specialist in the organization’s Washington office.

Still, Humane Society officials wish other animals could be protected, as well as pets.

“We’d love to see other animals protected, but to get something like that through the legislature is virtually impossible,” Wasson laments. “It’s dismaying to us that it’s perfectly fine to chop a deer’s head off and torture a deer — but that’s hunting.”

Humane Society Regional Director Phil Snyder says high-powered lobbyists from various quarters would derail any state felony-animal-cruelty legislation that didn’t include exceptions for hunting, research or farm production.

“It’s money,” Snyder states simply.

Animals as property

On a fundamental level, the legal distinction between wild and domestic creatures reflects the way people have regarded animals for centuries.

“Domestic animals are viewed as property, and wild animals are viewed either as a part of the natural environment or, less benignly, as kind of a threat,” asserts Dr. Ann Weber, a UNCA psychology professor who will offer a class on the relationship between people and animals this fall.

In the context of hunting, wild animals are viewed as potential property — or “potential meat,” in Weber’s words. That dynamic comes into play whenever wild animals such as deer are displaced by residential developments. When the animals return to nibble on someone’s garden, people view them as invaders. According to that way of thinking, what belongs to a person is more valuable than what doesn’t yet belong to someone, Weber says.

People also make psychological distinctions between animals, she notes, creating a kind of hierarchy.

“It’s OK to eat a cow,” says Weber. “It’s not OK to eat a dog.”

But not all cultures share those beliefs, she observes, pointing out that dogs and cats are eaten in such places as Vietnam, China and Korea. One such culture clash recently came to light when dog and cat fur obtained in Asia was found to have been used to make garments in the United States.

“Why are we making a distinction between dog and cat fur and, say, fox fur?” Weber asks rhetorically. Because dogs and cats are valued more in our society, she answers.

Biblical distinctions

The way animals are treated today can be traced back to Biblical distinctions, Weber says. Old Testament teachings give humans the right to use animals. Later Christian beliefs have held that animals don’t have souls, so they don’t have the same value in God’s eyes as humans do, she explains.

Before the 1800s, there is little record of people speaking out against cruelty to animals, write James M. Jasper and Dorothy Nelkin in The Animal Rights Crusade: The Growth of a Moral Protest.

In fact, Leonardo da Vinci was teased by his friends for his concern about animals, according to The Animal Rights Movement in America: From Compassion to Respect (Social Movements Past and Present) by Lawrence Finsen and Susan Finsen.

But by the late 1700s, a growing number of written works decried cruelty to animals. Ministers and poets such as Alexander Pope, John Gay and William Blake “reinterpreted the Biblical acknowledgment of man’s dominion over nature to mean thoughtful stewardship rather than ruthless exploitation” Jasper and Nelkin write.

By the 19th century, these sentiments had begun to produce action. Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1824, and by the early 20th century, a large number of such societies had been formed in the United States and Canada. For the most part, these groups focused their attention on working animals and pets.

However, since laws are designed to protect people and property, animal-cruelty laws aren’t seen as essential to society, Weber says, adding, “Animal-cruelty laws are seen, basically, as luxury-type laws.”

Those laws, she suggests, exist only because people have convinced legislators that animals feel pain, and that people who harm them should be punished.

Much of North Carolina’s law is inherited from English common law, which allowed both hunting and raising farm animals for food, notes Loeb.

“It doesn’t necessarily make sense, but it’s always been,” he says.

Weber — herself an animal-rights advocate — says a primary challenge is convincing people that animals have rights, the foremost being the right to live. But to accomplish the long-term goal, she continues, advocates must first persuade people to be sensitive to animal cruelty.

Organizing our world

As a cultural anthropologist, Dr. John Wood is intrigued by the ways people organize their view of the world.

Distinctions between domesticated and wild animals are not unlike those between “kin and non-kin” and “us and them,” he says.

“We can’t help but make these kinds of distinctions,” says Wood, a visiting professor at UNCA.

Because we include pets in our everyday lives, we feel closer to them, Wood argues, adding, “They’re kind of in our sphere.”

What’s more, people tend to ascribe human characteristics to animals, as reflected in the way we talk. Dogs, for example, are known as “man’s best friend.” A similar term would not be used for a bear, he suggests.

“Wild animals, we’re not so close to,” notes Wood, adding, “They’re a wild and distant other.”

Some cultures, such as the Gabra of East Africa, categorize animals as edible and nonedible. Since camels, goats and sheep are their livestock, the Gabra will hunt wild animals that resemble them. Since a giraffe has a long neck like a camel, the Gabra will hunt giraffes. But they won’t eat an ostrich or a zebra.

“It’s a variegated thing,” Wood explains. “It’s not just like it’s animals and nonanimals.”

Folk tales and mythology also shed light on how people see different animals, painting some creatures as “warm and fuzzy” while others are considered dangerous.

And as our modern world gets ever more hectic, people are increasingly estranged from one another, making pets even more important. People relate to dogs, for example, not as intelligent creatures but as fellow emotional beings, Wood observes.

“We identify with our pets the way we can’t identify with our fellow man,” he notes.

Emotional attachments

As the founder of the local Tyson Act Committee, Judy Covington Crawley spends much of her time advocating against animal cruelty and working to support laws protecting pets.

The committee grew out of an incident last year, in which a dog named Tyson was dragged behind a pickup truck. A petition circulated last July garnered 7,000 signatures urging the district attorney’s office to pursue felony-animal-cruelty charges against the man accused of dragging the dog, Crawley says. A jury on April 10 found the dog owner in that case not guilty of felony cruelty to animals, a decision that disappointed animal advocates.

“We believe that we, as a society, need to be the voice for our companion animals,” she explains.

The committee seeks to end animal abuse and neglect by working with elected officials to pass new laws or change current ones, and by advocating severe penalties for animal abusers. The group also monitors animal-cruelty trials, such as Sandlin’s, and plans to work on modifying local ordinances to encourage spaying and neutering of pets, Crawley reports.

As someone with five foster animals plus her own dog, Crawley understands the strong feelings people have for their pets.

“I think we, as human beings, tend to form more of an emotional attachment to domestic animals,” she observes.

Crawley also focuses on the welfare of domestic animals, because they can’t take care of themselves. Wild animals can survive on their own, she notes, and hunting is regulated by the state. Although she doesn’t understand how anyone can take a life, she feels domesticated animals more urgently need our attention.

“We allow thousands of animals monthly to procreate, causing innocent lives to be euthanized almost instantly,” laments Crawley, adding that her views may not reflect those of all members of the Tyson Act Committee. “To blame hunters for killing a deer, how can we fault them, when we refuse to take responsibility for our pets?”

Links to human violence

One reason The Humane Society has been successful in lobbying for tougher penalties for cruelty to animals may lie in the growing body of evidence suggesting links between such behavior and violence toward people.

The organization’s First Strike campaign aims to raise public awareness of this connection. Over the past 25 years, several studies have shown that violent offenders often have had histories — in childhood and adolescence — of serious, repeated acts of cruelty to animals. The FBI has recognized a connection since the 1970s, when its analysis of serial killers suggested that most had killed or tortured animals as children, according to Humane Society literature.

More recently, animal cruelty has surfaced in the cases of children accused of horrific acts of violence. The boy accused of shooting his classmates three years ago in Pearl, Miss., reportedly wrote in his personal journal that he and an accomplice had beaten, burned and tortured the boy’s dog, Sparkle, to death, according to the Humane Society. And one of the boys accused in the Jonesboro, Ark., school shooting reportedly told a friend that he shot dogs.

“The intent is not to scare people into thinking that every person that abuses animals is a serial killer,” cautions Snyder, The Humane Society’s regional director.

Still, instances of animal cruelty do warrant attention. In some communities, coalitions have been formed — bringing together representatives from animal control, law enforcement, domestic-violence shelters, the judicial system, and child protective services — to share information on animal abusers and educate the community about the seriousness of such acts, Snyder says. But District Attorney Ron Moore says he knows of no such coalition in Buncombe County.

“Violence is violence,” Snyder maintains. “A person who is violent toward animals could have the capability to be violent toward a human being.”

Still, Weber (the psychology professor) says she finds it ironic that there must be consequences for humans — not just for the animals themselves — before society will take animal cruelty seriously.

No links found

Unlike studies linking violence against pets with later violence against people, there is no reliable evidence connecting hunting with violence against people, says Dr. Randall Lockwood, vice president for research and education outreach at The Humane Society of the United States.

“The bottom line is, there’s really no good evidence one way or another,” he reports.

Animal-rights activists would like to say there is a connection, notes Lockwood, but hunting is consistent with the way our society deals with animals.


Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.