Friday, July 20, 2018

Establishing the Elements of a Cruelty to Animals Charge


Many states criminalize the intentional killing, injuring, maiming, torturing or mutilating of any animal.  In some states, simply abandoning or leaving an animal in any place without making provisions for its proper care or having physical custody of an animal and failing to provide food, potable water, protection from the elements, opportunity for exercise and other care, as is needed for the health or well-being of the animal is criminal.

But, what must the state prove to make a cruelty to animals charge stick?  That issue came up in a recent case and is the topic of today’s post. 

Common Elements

Typically, the state must prove that the defendant acted with depraved intent.  Cruelty to animals is typically classified as a misdemeanor carrying a penalty of up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,000. Most states do not classify as cruelty to animals accepted veterinary practices and bona fide experiments carried on by commonly recognized research facilities.  In many of the western states, rodeo practices accepted by the Rodeo Cowboy's Association are statutorily determined not to constitute cruelty to animals as well as the humane killing of an animal which is diseased or disabled beyond recovery for any useful purpose or for population control by the animal's owner.  Normal or accepted practices of animal husbandry do not constitute cruelty to animals with respect to farm animals, and killing an animal that is found injuring or posing a threat to another person, farm animal or property is also permitted.

Recent Case

In Cadwell v. State, No. 06-17-00227-CR 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 4545 (Tex. Ct. App. Jun. 21, 2018), the defendant and his estranged wife were involved in divorce proceedings and during that time various horses belonging to them that had been ordered into the defendant’s custody lost weight, reportedly due to inadequate nutrition. The defendant’s estranged wife as well as two other investigators and animal control officers all testified that the horses were in very bad condition with ribs showing and cracked and had split hooves due to malnutrition. The investigator testified that the horses were kept in an enclosure that had “virtually no grass,” and that grass that was present was too short for them to eat. All the bushes and shrubs had been picked clean. The water troughs within that enclosure were empty and had only leaves and debris in them or had been overturned. A stock tank or pond had water, but it was filled with debris and was stagnant. In addition, there was no evidence of hay found in the horses’ enclosure. The state’s expert witness was a veterinarian with 11 years’ experience. She explained that there is a body scoring scale from one (extremely emaciated) to nine or ten (being extremely obese). In addition, she explained that the acceptable range for a horse is four to six. A horse that is scored under four is in a condition that needs to be addressed. A horse scored at three on this scale is considered thin, while a score of two would indicated that a horse is badly emaciated but standing, while a one indicates extreme emaciation, not able to stand, and not considered savable. She testified that when she saw them the majority of the horses were scored at a three. She also testified that she was surprised with the relatively low parasite presence in most of them and concluded that the most likely reason for the horses’ thinness was that they were not being fed properly.

Ultimately, the defendant was convicted of cruelty to livestock animals and sentenced to 180 days in jail (which was changed to 24 months on the condition that the defendant serve 30 days in jail). The defendant appealed on the basis that there the state failed to prove that he had the criminal intent (mens rea) to harm the animals.  The appellate court determined that evidence could lead a rational jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was intentional or knowing in not providing one or more of the horses in his care enough nutrition.

The defendant also claimed that by inserting “by neglect” in the information and the jury charge, the State and the trial court, improperly instructed the jury and improperly lowered the mens rea requirement from intentionally or knowingly to a lower level of mens rea. However, the appellate court determined that the phrase “by neglect” charges the defendant with cruelty to animals by the manner and means of failure to act or of behavior that was not attentive to the needs of the horses, not with negligently doing so, especially given that the mens rea was specified in both the information and in the jury charge as intentional or knowing. Thus, the appellate court held that because the use of the phrase “by neglect” set out the manner and means of committing the offense and because the information and the jury charge clearly set out the required mens rea of intentional or knowing behavior by the defendant, the use of the phrase did not improperly reduce the State’s burden to prove the defendant’s willful or knowing mens rea. 


Generally accepted farming practices do not constitute animal cruelty.  Generally, providing adequate food and shelter is required, but some states have little to no shelter requirements in certain situations and with respect to certain types of livestock.  The statutory rules vary from state to state.

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