Will pet abuse registries make their way to Australia? By Andy Kollmorgen
Should people who abuse pets be prevented from owning pets? It seems fair to say that most people would say yes, thank goodness.
But can you really keep track of such miscreants? Well, you can try. An animal or pet abuse register is one approach that’s been gaining ground lately. You name and shame the abusers, and legally prevent them from owning pets for a prescribed period.
To the extent that people in the pet industry check such registers (and the jury’s still out on this), they could serve to block the sale of pets to people who should never own pets and, for that matter, should probably seek psychiatric help.
The idea is not without controversy, but pet-abuse registries are increasingly coming on line around the world through both official and not-so-official channels.
One self-authorised US-based registry with international ambitions uses Facebook as a platform and features grisly before-and-after shots of abused pets along with a gallery of pet abusers who went on to become famous serial killers.
The site recently issued a call-out to help catch a Northern Rivers NSW abuser whose alleged crimes are better left unmentioned.
On the official side, the US state of Tennessee recently launched an animal-abuse registry administered by the state police (aka the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) that prominently displays the offender’s photograph, address, date of birth and conviction date. In Tennessee, abusers stay on the registry for two years after conviction.
In 2014, the New York City Council established the Animal Abuse Registration Act, which holds that any adult convicted of abusing an animal must be added to the city’s Animal Abuse Registry.
Once on the NYC registry, abusers are prohibited from owning or having any physical contact with any animal for five years after they’re convictedfor or released from prison. Other US states, as well as some Canadian provinces, are following suit.
The idea has yet to find a foothold in Australia. In 2014, the activist organisation change.org launched a petition calling for a registry to be established in Australia; the petition received 590 endorsements out of a hoped-for 1000. It wasn’t enough to get a registry up and running, but is it time for another try? (Other more recent petitions launched by private citizens have gotten closer to the mark.)
“There would need to be evidence that the register had an ability to prevent the offender re-offending, rather than being just a name-and-shame register.”—Dr Debbie Neutze, policy manager, AVA
Australian Veterinary Association policy manager, Dr Debbie Neutze, wants to see pet abusers stopped in their tracks, but she isn’t entirely sold on the registry idea. “There would need to be evidence that the register had an ability to prevent the offender re-offending, rather than being just a name-and-shame register,” says Dr Neutze. “It really comes down to good legislation, appropriate jail time and preventing the abuser from owning pets. Cases should be prosecuted through the courts, penalties should be high and they should include prohibition from owning animals and jail time where appropriate. The emphasis needs to be on stopping any immediate animal abuse and preventing animal abuse.”
Treating abused animals is not an everyday occurrence for vets, Dr Neutze points out, but it does happen. “Most vets will see some cases throughout their career and any case is [one] too many.”
In an RSPCA Australia position paper (last updated in 2012), the organisation went on record in support of a national animal-abuse register as part of a proposed Animal Care and Protection Act, but access to the register would be limited to “members of state, territory and Commonwealth police forces, relevant government agencies, and RSPCA inspectorate departments”.
An RSPCA Australia spokesperson told Vet Practice that “dealing with the consequence of both deliberate, violent abuse of animals as well as cruelty by neglect is a major issue for the RSPCA in Australia,” adding that “in all states and territories, the RSPCA has protocols in place for actions by staff or members of the community who suspect cruelty has taken place.”
But most cases of cruelty are actually cases of neglect, the spokesperson pointed out. “Anecdotally, the number of deliberate violent cruelty offences we see is believed to be quite low, though it varies at different times. The vast majority of cases we see are cruelty though neglect, often due to lack of knowledge of understanding as well as other reasons.”
The penalties for animal cruelty in Australia (both deliberate and through negligence) are not insignificant. They range from a $13,700 fine and maximum one-year jail term in the Northern Territory to a $235,600 fine (or $1,178,000 for a corporation) and maximum seven-year jail term in Queensland.
But it may be that many instances of animal cruelty go unpunished for lack of proof or other reasons. In 2015-16, the RSPCA investigated 62,714 animal cruelty complaints nationwide but only laid charges in 1,963 cases and saw 250 successful prosecutions. (And these were only the RSPCA complaints; you can also complain to the police and chapters of the Animal Welfare League.)
An animal-abuse register might serve as a preventative for the subjects of such complaints, but what about privacy issues? Can you get into legal trouble for naming and shaming an animal abuser, no matter how heinous their deeds? It doesn’t appear so.
Privacy law in Australia doesn’t specifically cover such a scenario, and it’s pretty vague on details in general except in cases like information privacy. Legislation that may apply in bits and pieces varies from state to state, but there is no case law on the subject. Suffice to say, there is no legal obstacle at this point that would specifically prohibit a pet-abuse register from being published.
And it may be that animal rights trump personal privacy. In a major report tabled by the Australian Law Reform Commission in 2008 following a 28-month review of the federal Privacy Act 1988, the federal agency made the point that “privacy protection is not an absolute” when other collective interests are at stake.
“Where circumstances require, the vindication of individual rights must be balanced carefully against other competing rights,” the Commission concluded. Whether that includes the rights of animals and the people who love them has yet to be tested.