What to consider when you think you witness animal abuse

Mati JarveWith the warm weather upon us, equine activity is on the rise. We see more riding, more showing, and more interaction with other horse owners. But what happens when we see too much? Suppose you are a witness to, or suspect horse abuse or cruelty? Unfortunately, it’s a fact of life that some people, either out of ignorance or ill-intent, mistreat their animals. Are you under an obligation to report suspected abuse? What are the consequences, either way?

At the present time, despite increased demand from animal right’s activists, no state has a law that requires a person to report suspected animal abuse, unless that person is a veterinarian. A number of states have made it mandatory for a veterinarian to report suspected abuse of a horse or any other animal. The reason for this is that vets are in the best position to accurately recognize abuse. They are medical professionals that have a close relationship with the animals and their owners. The average person has no such advantage and therefore has no requisite legal obligation to report suspected abuse.

Some would argue that if animal abuse is suspected, despite the fact that there is no legal duty, there is still an ethical and moral duty to report the abuse. This seems to make sense, and most horse lovers would agree wholeheartedly. However, as is usually the case, this seemingly simple answer is not without its complications.

The first issue is, of course, is who to report suspected abuse to. Every state has some form of animal cruelty statute in place, so the first and most obvious choice is local law enforcement (i.e. your town or county police department). However, a number of local law enforcement agencies do not handle animal abuse complaints themselves, and may refer you to another organization, such as the ASPCA or Humane Society. In some states, these organizations have the authority to investigate and make a binding determination regarding animal abuse complaints, but there may be an added level of “red tape” and inconvenience involved. Less common reporting options include volunteer associations, such as the Animal League Defense Fund, which even has a mobile app so that people can report suspected cruelty to the proper authorities, even allowing individuals to send photos of the suspected abuse.

Still, while many of us agree that there is a moral obligation to report suspected abuse of a horse, caution and common sense must govern. Reporting what we think is abuse can land us in a sticky pile of legal trouble if we are wrong. Things may not always be as they seem, and what looks like mistreatment to one person may be intensive training to another. Or the horse out in our neighbor’s pasture that looks emaciated and not well cared for may be suffering from an illness rather than neglect. Some might think, better safe than sorry, but legal problems can arise for a person who reports abuse when there is none. For instance, they can be sued by the horse’s owner (or whoever they are accusing of abuse) for defamation.

Defamation can be a complicated subject, but basically, when a statement of fact (not opinion) is made that gives a negative impression of a person or group, and which causes harm to that person or group’s reputation, and that statement is false, a claim for defamation may arise. The statement can be spoken (slander) or written (libel) (which includes photographs). To be actionable, the statement must be false, and must be communicated to someone other than the person or group who is claiming to have been defamed. The person must have suffered actual damages as a result of the defamation. Of course, there are defenses to a defamation case, and often times if the person making a claim of abuse reasonably believes that abuse is taking place, they can defeat a claim for defamation. But the onus may be upon the person making the claim to show that they were reasonably diligent in investigating the matter before making the claim. Still, defensible or not, the resulting legal battle can be time consuming and costly.

Given the specter of defamation, some might think to skip the regular channels of reporting abuse and take matters into their own hands. However, doing so could still be asking for legal trouble. For instance, a friend of mine had a client who saw a horse tied out in a pasture on a particularly hot day without what she felt was adequate water or shelter. She took it upon herself to enter onto the property and bring the horse a bucket of water. Unfortunately, rather than expressing gratitude, the horse got spooked when she approached and injured itself. She was subsequently sued by the owner for trespass and for expenses resulting from the horse’s injury.

All this is not to say that we should not report suspected abuse. Rather, it is to emphasize that we should exercise caution and common sense before jumping to conclusions or taking action. Of course, some cases are pretty clear cut, and the  abuse is apparent. Other times, though, things may not be as they seem, and we should take a step back, analyze the situation, and perhaps ask for another opinion. We might even consider talking to the person whom we suspect of abuse.

One important note in this regard, though, concerns the practice of soring. Unlike other domestic animals that fall within the protection of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), horses are not subject to any federally mandated protection except for the Horse Protection Act.

The HPA specifically prevents sored horses from participating in shows, exhibitions, sales or auctions, and prohibits the transport of sored horses to and from any such events. While, under the act, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture has the right to send inspectors to any horse show or event to scout out soring activity, event organizers and managers may also be under an obligation to report any soring practices that they become aware of, or risk also being subject to penalties under the Act.

The moral of the story is, when in doubt, take a step back, and look at the situation from another perspective. Ultimately, your instincts could prove to be spot on, but if they are not, pausing before taking action can save everyone involved a lot of aggravation and heartache.

Mati Jarve is the managing partner of the Marlton, New Jersey law firm of Jarve Kaplan Granato, LLC. He is certified by the New Jersey Supreme Court as a Civil Trial Attorney and the National Board of Trial Attorneys as a Trial Advocate. License  in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Arizona, he maintains a national practice in civil litigation, including equine related issues. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. If you have a specific legal question or problem you should consult with an experienced and knowledgeable equine law attorney. Questions, comments or suggestions can be emailed to mjarve@nj-triallawyers.com, by visiting www.nj-triallawyers.com. 

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