Animals Win Day in Oregon Court: They Can Be Victims, Not Mere Property

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Israeli merchants with horse-drawn carts sometimes face animal-abuse allegations (illustration).Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

n a triumph for animal rights, the Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that an animal can be defined as a "legal victim" in a criminal case, which paves the way for greater police protection - and harsher punitive rulings in the animals' favor. And in another animal case that same day, August 7, the court ruled that police hadn't had to wait for a warrant to enter a property and save an animal horse starved to the point of death: it would have died while waiting for the red tape to unravel, the court explained.

The case prompting the landmark ruling involved a man found guilty of starving 20 horses and goats he owned. The leap was the judge's finding Arnold Nix guilty in the case of each and every animal, not collectively: each was a separate victim.

The animal abuser can only blame himself. He argued, in 2009, that the animals were his property and therefore, couldn't be categorized as victims under law. Fast-forward to the appeal this August, when the judge disagreed: animals may be property but each may be a victim unto himself.

So instead of one count of animal abuse, Nix may face 20, one for each horse and goat.

" Significantly, the Court soundly rejected defendants’ contention that animal protection laws exist solely for human benefit," write Scott Heiser and Laura Dunn of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

It bears mention that animals join not only the lofty company of humanity as victims, but also non-corporeal entities such as companies. Oh well. But at least, under the new Oregon definition, animals may be afforded greater protection under the law, say legal experts, adding that includes empowering the police to enter a property for an animal's sake, even without a warrant. Also, animal abusers may face stiffer penalties.

How might these cases have played out in Israel? Interestingly, says Yossi Wolfson of the Israeli nonprofit association "Let the Animals Live", who suspects that Israeli law tends to be kinder to animals.

Under Israeli law, entering a private home to investigate allegations of animal abuse requires a warrant issued by the courts, says Wolfson. Anywhere else – company or other premises, he says – the police may enter freely to protect the animal. He believes a bill is meandering forward to enable police to enter private homes without a warrant as well, in case of suspected animal suffering.

"Israeli courts have ruled that animals can't just be treated as property or as objects, but have rights," he says.

The most basic right under Israeli law is not to be unnecessarily abused, though a world of interpretation lies in that word "unnecessarily," Wolfson agrees. For instance, in an extremely famous case, Israeli law prohibited force-feeding waterfowl (yes, geese) because of the suffering it causes them; but the law still allows the birds' slaughter, Wolfson points out.

"One could say that there are rights but they're very limited," he sums up.