Congress makes intentional animal cruelty a federal felony

Bipartisan votes close loophole in anti-crushing law

Published: November 05, 2019
By Lisa Wogan

The U.S. Senate took a big step toward closing a gap in animal protection today when it approved the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act by unanimous consent. The bill, which also passed unanimously in the House in October, makes certain acts of animal cruelty a federal felony.

Current national law bans animal fighting as well as making and sharing of “crush videos,” but does not ban the acts depicted in those videos. If signed into law by President Donald Trump, the PACT Act will ban intentional crushing, burning, drowning, suffocating, impaling or causing other “serious bodily injury” to animals. Violators could be fined and sentenced to as many as seven years in prison.

Crush videos are a sexual fetish for individuals who are aroused by watching the abuse of small animals.

The bill includes exceptions for husbandry, killing animals for food, hunting, scientific research, euthanizing animals, self-protection and veterinary care.

​“Today’s vote by the Senate to advance the PACT Act is a historic victory for animal welfare,” Dr. John Howe, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, said in a statement provided to the VIN News Service. “Thanks to the bipartisan work of lawmakers and animal welfare advocates, we’re one step closer to finally criminalizing the cruel and inhumane act of animal crushing. We’re looking forward to seeing President Trump sign this bill into law.” 

The administration has not indicated whether Trump would back the legislation but supporters are optimistic he will, considering its strong bipartisan support.

The PACT Act had passed the Senate by unanimous consent in the previous two congressional sessions but it was blocked in the House by former Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte. A Republican, Goodlatte did not seek reelection in 2018. With control of the House switching to Democrats after the 2018 election, the Judiciary Committee is now chaired by U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler, who cosponsored the PACT Act.

All states have provisions against animal cruelty, and the PACT Act does not preempt or interfere with those laws. Instead, the bill would be a “federal overlay,” according to a fact sheet provided by the bill’s House sponsors.

“We want the federal law to be a tool that deals with problems the states cannot handle, and the enactment of this law fills a gap in our federal legal framework against cruelty,” Wayne Pacelle, founder of Animal Wellness Action, an animal advocacy group that lobbied for the bill, told the VIN News Service. He explained that a federal ban is needed for animal abuse that occurs on federal property, in aircraft or in shipping, or in a matter of cruelty that crosses state lines.

For veterinarians, who are sometimes on the frontlines of witnessing the effects of animal mistreatment, the new law won’t change their legal obligations. States define what constitutes animal cruelty and determine veterinarians’ obligations and protections for reporting suspected cases to authorities.

Last week, the U.S. Senate also approved a multi-agency spending bill for fiscal year 2020 that provides support for other animal welfare programs, including $3 million for a new grant program to help domestic violence shelters accommodate companion animals, originally authorized in the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act in 2018. Another provision provides consistent funding for enforcing the Horse Protection Act, which is aimed at preventing soring, the practice of inflicting pain on a horse's lower forelegs and feet so that it lifts its legs higher in an attempt to escape the discomfort. The exaggerated gait wins equine show competitions. Meanwhile, a bill known as the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act seeks to close enforcement loopholes in the Horse Protection Act. It passed the House in July. It is currently in the Senate, where it has failed to pass three times in the last six years.

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