This post was written by staff member, Matt Cocanougher.
It is nearly impossible to imagine the state of Kentucky without the equine industry. From the Derby, to the Kentucky Horse Park, to our "unbridled spirit", horses are an integral part in creating the culture of the Bluegrass State. Because of their star stature and economic importance, one would assume that Kentucky's animal cruelty laws would be especially strict for those who abuse horses. Interestingly, however, Kentucky law on animal cruelty reserves its most severe punishment for animal fighting while designating other types of animal abuse as lesser offenses.
The Kentucky statute on animal fighting provides that the owner of an animal involved in fighting "for profit or pleasure" as well as the owner of the land where the fight occurred and "anyone who participates in the organization" of the fight are guilty of a Class D felony. Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 525.125 (LexisNexis 2009). This crime carries a penalty of up to five years in prison as well as a fine of up to $10,000. Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 532.020 (LexisNexis 2009); Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 534.030 (LexisNexis 2009). On the other hand, Kentucky's more general statute on animal cruelty states that a party is guilty of animal cruelty in the second degree if they intentionally or wantonly: abandon the animal, are spectators or vendors at an animal fighting event, mutilate, beat or torture an animal other than a cat or dog, . . . or fail to provide adequate food, drink, space or health care for the animal. Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 525.130(1)(a) (LexisNexis 2009). This crime is considered a Class A misdemeanor, and carries a punishment of up to 12 months in county jail along with a potential maximum fine of $500. Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 532.020 (LexisNexis 2009); Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 534.040 (LexisNexis 2009). Given the similarities in the means used to abuse the animals in these statutes, should these two crimes have such a disparity in punishment?
This question is illuminated by a recent Lexington Herald Leader article covering an incident of animal cruelty in Danville, Kentucky. See Danville Man to be Arraigned on Animal-Cruelty Charges, LEXINGTON HERALD LEADER, available at http://www.kentucky.com/latest_news/story/928474.html (last visited Sept. 17, 2009). James Lancaster was charged with animal cruelty after starving horses that were in his care. After an anonymous tip to authorities, the emaciated horses were found in a barn north of Danville. Id. At the time the horses were found, "The equine body condition scores of the 10 animals were 1 and 2, with the highest possible score being 10." Id. Fortunately, veterinarians were able to treat these horses and they were taken out of Mr. Lancaster's care. Id. While this story had a happy ending, Mr. Lancaster's actions raise several legal issues. Even though his possible sentence of a year in jail and a $500 fine is nothing to scoff about, it pales in comparison to what his penalty would have been if he had been involved in animal fighting. This begs the question, is starving or torturing an animal any less blameworthy than participation in animal fighting?
From a policy perspective, this situation also raises the issue of whether this result is tenable from the perspective of the horse industry as many horse owners must trust others to care for their animals. Those in care of the animals, like Mr. Lancaster, have a special responsibility to the horses and their owners. A punishment for animal abuses on par with that of animal fighting may provide a clear example of this special duty to those who are supposed to be caring for the animals.