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Animal owners are ALWAYS liable in cruelty cases – is this right or wrong?

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

This is very interesting in regards to securing a conviction for animal abuse, neglect etc. I thought I’d go a different route and share my ramblings. So hold tight, because this will be primarily non-referenced and heavily personal opinion based regarding our beloved Animal Welfare Act 2006.

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 describes those who are responsible for an animal are the ones who meet/ is the one who meets any of the following:

”Section 3:

Responsibility for animals

(1)In this Act, references to a person responsible for an animal are to a person responsible for an animal whether on a permanent or temporary basis.

(2)In this Act, references to being responsible for an animal include being in charge of it.

(3)For the purposes of this Act, a person who owns an animal shall always be regarded as being a person who is responsible for it.

(4)For the purposes of this Act, a person shall be treated as responsible for any animal for which a person under the age of 16 years of whom he has actual care and control is responsible.”

So, under the AWA06, you are liable if you are in charge of an animal, whether permanently or temporarily, or are the parent/ legal guardian of someone under 16 who is causing unnecessary suffering. This also means (referring to section 3, part 3) the owner is ALWAYS responsible.

This highlights two issues for me.

My first issue: the owner will be liable even if they have genuinely done nothing wrong.

Imagine you are suddenly having to travel for a family emergency and there is no one available on such short notice to pop in and feed and walk the dog. You call up a local kennels run by the lovely lady you’ve known for years – they have no availability. Eventually you find one that is able to come and pick Fluffy up and keep them for the weekend. They have great pictures on their twitter and a 4.5 start rating on facebook. Perfect. You fly out to wherever and sort out your family to return home and Fluffy is in a bad way. Turns out the kennels had hired weekend help by a lady who has been kicking and screaming at the dogs when she thought she was alone. Who is at fault? The lady who hurt the animal, of course, and she was temporarily in charge of the animal. How about the kennel owners? Surely they are also classed as temporarily responsible. Oh yes, and you, the owner. Remember, under the animal welfare act 2006, the owner is always responsible!!!

Old Jerald has fallen and needs emergency hip replacement surgery. He is rushed to hospital and his number one worry is Pumpkin the cat. As an indoor cat, Pumpkin is going to need feeding, watering and his litterbox cleaning as a bare minimum but Jerald lives alone and could be in the hospital for weeks. He calls his only son, Jim, who says ‘no worries dad I’ll take care of pumpkin’. Now Jim doesn’t like cats, and isn’t familiar with their ways. He chucks some happy shopper cat biscuit in a plastic tub on the floor each morning, even though it’s clearly not being eaten and that’s that. A few weeks on, the neighbours call the RSPCA because they can see poor Pumpkin is not looking too great through the conservatory window. Who’s liable? Jim, as he was temporarily in charge, and rightly so. But Jerald as well, as he is the owner, and remember, the owner is ALWAYS liable.

Is it fair to say the owner is always liable?  If we replace the term owner to guardian, does it allow the owner to avoid unnecessary punishment if they are genuinely not to blame?

Now I can easily argue that the fictional dog owners should have better researched where their dog was going or make better arrangements for Fluffy, and that fictional Jerald was a damn fool for trusting his no good son, Jim with his precious Pumpkin, but having the owner always liable in cruelty cases seems ill-fitting for at least some cases.

My second issue: Proving ownership.

Now the original question to us was about replacing the term owner with guardian in regards to animal protection. I am getting to the answer, and I promise there is a point in here somewhere.

It’s a difficult thing to prove ownership. Since the law was updated in April 2016 that ALL DOGS MUST BE MICROCHIPPED, I can imagine that a simple swipe of the reader over a neglected or abused animal will ping up with the details of the owner who is responsible for such an atrocity. But wait – what about chips that cannot be read? What about dogs that have new owners, addresses or just simply outdated information? What about the odd dogs picked up that actually haven’t got microchips? Surely these abused or neglected animals deserve justice too.

Horses have passports, but again there will always be those who fall through the system and either do not have paperwork attached or incorrect/ missing information. How do you prove ownership then? Are the animals missing passports and microchips then sentenced to death, regardless of whether they have been found to be abused or neglected?

Then there are the animals that do not carry the same legal protection that comes with microchipping and passports. How do you prove ownership of a cat, rabbit, hamster, degu, python, skunk, meerkat,  etc. etc. It’s easy to stand up in court and deny ownership of something you can buy off of a dodgy facebook group with no receipt and no name tag attached.

Now coming back to the original question (and a pat on the back if you are still with me). Does replacing the term ‘animal owner’ with ‘animal guardian’ improve the protection of animal welfare?

Well… to remove the title of owner you can potentially come down on those found abusing or neglecting animals without having to prove ownership, only that they were guardians. This may be easier for animals that do not have microchips or passports associated with them. But does this also mean then, that under the animal welfare act, the owner isn’t liable, only the guardian? This does appear to be beneficial to those ‘owners’ who played no part in any unnecessary suffering but are currently deemed liable, but it could also be used as a scapegoat for owners who wish to plead ignorance.

I’m torn with this, but I feel that within law, we are too hung up on technicalities and terminology, and that perhaps the animal protection movement should focus more on increasing sentencing for animal abusers, and less about what words best describe those who are ‘temporarily or permanently in charge of an animal’ so we can see those who cause suffering to animals taste the bitter porridge of justice.

Animal Welfare Act2006


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