How many years is an animal's life worth?

I have a pet. Being cruel to animals is wrong. But why put more people in jail for it?

A quick, and I trust unnecessary, upfront disclaimer. I think torturing kittens and deliberately starving puppies to death is wrong and worthy of criminal punishment.

That said, I don't support Simon Bridges' efforts - which National's caucus has just chosen to adopt as government policy - to increase the maximum penalty for such actions from 3 to 5 years imprisonment. It seems to me to be yet another example of treating our prisons as the answer to a complex social problem, based on some fairly dodgy moral reasoning and suspect causative assumptions, all for the sake of scratching a populist itch. Kind of like the three-strikes sentencing policy, now that I think about it.

First off, if we're serious about this topic, we need to confront a hard-to-reconcile dichotomy in New Zealand's views on how animals ought to be treated. (Any ethical vegetarians reading this can flick their smug-switch on about now.) We get pretty het up about people who do things like this, or this, to family pets. We even seek to re-educate (or even punish) those who choose to kill and eat the "wrong" sort of animals in our country, even when they do so quickly, cleanly and with a minimum of suffering. But at the same time, our national economy continues to rely primarily upon the systematic ill-treatment of animals for profit.

Yes, yes, I know we have legally enforceable animal welfare codes to cover the farming industry. And I'm sure most cockies will proclaim their deep commitment to caring for their livestock and ensuring its wellbeing (up until the point of slaughter, and within the iron bounds of economic necessity, of course). But there still is no getting away from the fact that literally millions of animals annually die in conditions of extreme terror in our freezing works, or live on dairy farms in a state of constant pregnancy and lactation, or are stuffed into battery cages or sow crates for their short and miserable lives.

Of course, you can argue that these practices are not "deliberately cruel", as they aren't intended to inflict pain for its own sake but rather are the unfortunate by-product of mass producing protein for our consumption. But that's the dodgy moral reasoning I referred to earlier in my post. It requires you to believe it's OK for an animal to experience pain and terror if you are going to enjoy eating it afterwards, but not OK to enjoy causing that pain in and of itself. I can have some respect for that argument coming from a hunter who tracks and kills (usually) his prey with his own skills. But there's something deeply suspect about the average supermarket consumer who won't even spend the extra money needed to buy free range over battery cage eggs then expressing their deep disgust for those who are responsible for hurting innocent creatures like cats.

Perhaps it's the need to find a justification for why deliberately hurting animals for pleasure is bad and deserving of lengthy prison terms, while deliberately hurting them for profit and consumption is good and deserving of knighthoods, that leads to suspect causative assumptions being drawn. In explaining why longer sentences are justified for extreme cases of mistreatment, Simon Bridges explained that: "The research makes it very clear that this type of offending is a strong indicator of family and other violence and also a strong indicator of the worst type of psychopathic offending."

He's right about this factual claim, as this article and this book explain. But just why does the correlation between intentional cruelty to animals and offending against humans now justify longer prison sentences for cruelty to animals? If an offender against animals also is harming humans (in the family or otherwise), then why not sentence her or him for that crime? And if an offender against animals isn't also harming humans, then why should she or he go to jail for longer just because some other such offenders do so? In other words, doesn't the intention appear to be to punish every offender against animals for what only some offenders also do to humans?

No, the answer will come. The idea is to deter all people from acting in seriously cruel ways towards animals, thus stopping them from also hurting humans. But even if we accept that stopping one form of cruelty can halt the other (and if so, why not help animals by trying harder to stop people hurting people?), will an increase in prison sentances really have such a deterrent effect? For instance, the link between animal cruelty and psychopathic offending appears to relate to that offender's actions as a child and young adult, when the cognitive reasoning process is only developing. And how exactly will putting a nascent psychopath in prison for torturing a cat or bird help to stop the progression of his or her psychopathic tendencies?

Equally, the links between familial violence and cruelty towards animals seem to be complex and interweaving. From my brief perusal of the literature (and please - anyone more expert in this field jump on the comments section below), it appears that those who experience violent and abusive family settings are much more likely to engage in cruelty towards animals. Hence, a goodly number of those subject to the proposed longer prison sentences will be those who already in their lives have been mistreated in fairly horrible ways.

Now, I know the argument; being a victim of violence does not justify meting out violence to others. I fully accept that. I also accept that the criminal law has a role as a marker of societal disapproval, to demonstrate that certain actions are just not OK in any situation. As I said in my opening paragraph, wanton cruelty to animals deserves criminal punishment.

However, if society's disapproval simply is marked by locking a few people up for longer, it won't work. The campaign against domestic violence in New Zealand shows that you need a broad strategy that combines rigorous prosecution of offenders with general consciousness raising measures that violence against others is never acceptable. And given that John Key himself claims that only 1% of serious cases of cruelty against animals currently are prosecuted, there is a lot to do even within the current law before it is perceived as a real sanction. It is detection and prosecution that matters for deterrence, not the term of imprisonment.

And here's another problem with raising the sentencing tarrif for extreme cruelty to animals to 5 years imprisonment, one recognised when Justice Minister Simon Power talks about the need to "retain proportionality" in sentences. 5 years in jail is the same potential punishment as is faced by a parent who wilfully neglects or ill-treats her or his child, or a person who assaults another with a weapon. There's no way that a government politically can allow such offences to continue to carry the same potential jail time as harming a mere animal - so it will have to raise the sentences for these sorts of offences as well. Which is going to mean more people spending more time in prisons that already are getting over-crowded, at a cost of over $100,000 a year, for little appreciable social gain. (Interested readers may wish to read (or re-read) this about now.)

So if an increase in prison sentences for animal cruelty isn't the right thing to do, does that mean we should just stick to the status quo of allowing animals to be treated as machines for our amusement? Not necessarily. For one thing, the SPCA presently has sole responsibility for investigating and prosecuting cases of animal cruelty, all of which is funded by private donations (you can give here, by the way). If the government is serious about wanting to stomp out such cases, perhaps it could help meet those costs? For another, I think that children or youth who exhibit a severe lack of empathy for other living beings by engaging in extreme cruelty towards animals require quite intensive forms of intervention and counselling. However, the fate of the Te Hurihanga pilot programme for young offenders, widely praised by those involved in the justice system for actually helping break the cycle of offending, seems to indicate that such programmes are too rich for the present government's taste.

Apparently it's much easier, and more headline friendly, to just change a law.