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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 7, 2007

Look to intent when
prosecuting animal cruelty cases

We noted a sharp contrast last week between the words of Albany County’s district attorney, filled with righteousness over a man’s guilty plea in killing a cat, and the words of the man who killed his pet, suffering and sad.

"It is an outrage," said District Attorney David Soares in a statement released to the media, "that an innocent animal was forced to endure a terrible attack with no ability to defend itself against an adult man who should have known better. I’m very pleased that this man served significant time in jail for his crime...."

William Brannigan told us that he only wanted to prevent his 18-year-old cat, Elvis, from suffering after it collapsed and he did not want to bury it alive. He picked up the cat after it collapsed, he said, and waited 20 minutes before he stabbed it with his pocket knife "because I didn’t want to put it outside in the cold while it was still alive."

He went on, "I haven’t felt good about it since it happened. Me and my mother were going to have it put to sleep, but she had heart trouble and had to go to the hospital." A few days later, the cat collapsed, he said.

"I did it as humane as possible and I stabbed it so it wouldn’t suffer," he said. "My niece turned me in...She was angry with me; she didn’t understand."

Brannigan was arrested on a felony charge in March after a veterinarian did an autopsy on the cat and determined it was stabbed prior to its death.

"I wasn’t going to go against the vet and face three years in jail...I’m almost 62 years old," said Brannigan whose occupation is listed as "disabled" on the arrest report.

He agreed to plead guilty to one count of attempted aggravated cruelty to animals, a misdemeanor. He served 60 days in jail and will be on probation for three years. His house will be spot checked during his probation to be sure he has no animals, and he has to pay for the autopsy.

Anyone can feel outrage when, as happened in Schenectady a decade ago, teenagers doused an 18-month-old tabby named Buster with kerosene and burned the cat to death. That led to a law, named for the dead cat, making such acts a felony.

But do we really feel outrage that an old man who thought his long-time pet had died wanted to be sure it was dead before he buried it in snow" How is the public served by prosecuting such a case" Does Brannigan’s 60 days in jail make any of us safer" Does it even make cats safer"

We tried to make something useful out of last week’s story. Our reporter, Jarrett Carroll, talked to a respected Guilderland veterinarian about euthanasia. Dr. Edward Becker described a pain-free procedure that can only be performed by a vet. We urge the public to use this method when a pet is too ill to save.

"I’d like to believe the days of bringing a dog behind the shed and using a rifle are over," Becker said. "But I don’t know if there is a law that would prevent that...It certainly wouldn’t be ethical."

That statement led us to consider further the ethics of killing animals. It is hard to reconcile the way we, as a society, endorse the killing of animals, to be used for food or clothing, but condemn a killing like Brannigan’s.

The difference, of course, is that we don’t consider most farm animals or wild animals to be pets. One local vet told us several years ago as he looked back on decades of practice, "Dogs and cats have gone from the woodshed or barn to the house and to the bedroom. They are now considered part of the household." Over 70 percent of pet owners consider their pets to be family members, he said, which is reflected in veterinary practices that include organ transplants and cancer treatments as well as euthanasia and cremation.

Paul Maza, DVM of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine answered some of our questions by e-mail this week. "The euthanasia process," he said, "is made to be as stress free as possible, to alleviate anxiety in the cat and the cat’s owners." It typically ranges in price from $35 to $100, he said, and involves first administering a tranquilizer to calm the cat and then an agent to depress the central nervous system, "causing a cat to literally go to sleep," he said.

"There may also be a cost involved with the cremation of the cat, and that can range from $40 to $150 depending on whether or not the cat’s owners would like to have a private cremation, and the ashes of the deceased cat returned in an urn or other container. Additionally, some cat owners may decide on burial in a pet cemetery, and there would be costs involved with that as well."

Asked if farmers are bound by the same laws as pet owners when it comes to destroying sick or maimed animals, Maza said, "Certainly farm animal care is a different subject, but many feel that pet dogs and cats are considered companion animals, part of the family, and we would hope to comfort the pet until proper veterinary care is available."

A report put out by the American Veterinary Medical Association Panel on Euthanasia explains that the word "euthanasia" comes from the Greek terms for "good death," and lists barbiturates as an acceptable way to kill swine and ruminants like cows and lists gunshot, electrocution, and penetrating captive bolt as conditionally acceptable for killing those animals.

Temple Grandin who has revolutionized the way livestock is killed in America and around the world has said, "I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect."

Grandin, who is autistic, has said that she knows the anxiety of feeling threatened by her surroundings and has designed humane systems for restraining and stunning animals. "Gentle handling in well-designed facilities will minimize stress levels, improve efficiency, and maintain good meat quality," writes Grandin.

She also writes about ritual slaughter, required by Jewish and Muslim traditions, which require animals to be killed, without being stunned, with a razor sharp knife. The major concern, Grandin says, is the cruel methods of restraint used in some plants and she recommends devices which hold the animal in a comfortable, upright position rather than hanging them upside down.

Grandin writes in her essay, "Animals are not Things," that they are technically property in our society but that law gives them ethical protections or rights.

Over 2,000 years ago, Plato wrote in The Republic that a shepherd has a duty to care for and better his sheep, but his role as a wage earner does not trump his primary obligation to the animal.

Veterinarians themselves can face a dilemma when a pet owner brings in a healthy animal and wants to have it euthanized. Does the vet serve the animal or the owner"

Or what about a pet who is suffering terribly with an incurable disease but the owner just can’t let it go" Does the veterinarian serve the psychological needs of the owner and prolong the suffering of the animal"

Animal rights activists differ, too — for example on whether it is more humane to spay and neuter feral cats and release them or to euthanize unwanted cats so they don’t suffer from cold weather, disease, and malnutrition.

There are no simple answers. But proclaiming outrage and pursuing jail time for a man’s misguided attempt to prevent his pet’s suffering does not serve society.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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