A Brief History Of The Animal Cruelty Standard In Minnesota

Several legal texts are ordered across several shelves.

CONTENT: In this second article of a five-part series on animal cruelty, we will look at the history of animal cruelty laws in Minnesota.

Early Standard

Animal cruelty laws did not exist at common law; rather, such laws are statutory in nature. See Stephens v. State, 65 Miss. 329, 331, 3 So. 458, 459 (1888) (“The common law recognized no rights in such animals, and punished no cruelty to them, except in so far as it affected the rights of individuals to such property.”); see also Corwin R. Kruse, Baby Steps: Minnesota Raises Certain Forms of Animal Cruelty to Felony Status, 28 WM. MITCHELL L. REV. 1649, 1653 (2002) (noting that animal cruelty was not a crime at common law). In Minnesota, the first statute that prohibited torture or cruelty to animals was enacted while the state was still a territory. Rev. Stat., ch. 107, 18 (1851). It provided that a person who “cruelly beat or tortured any horse, ox, or other animal, whether belonging to himself or another, shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail, not more than thirty days, or by fine not exceeding fifty dollars, nor less than five dollars.” Id.

In 1854, this language was modified to read: “every person who shall willfully and maliciously kill, maim or disfigure any horses, cattle or other beasts of another person . . . shall be punished.” Rev. Stat., ch. 101, 39 (1854); see also U.S. v. Gideon, 1 Minn. 292, 296 (1856) (quoting relevant language). Interestingly, this change restricted the crime only to those individuals who harmed an animal belonging to another, which essentially created a safe haven for an animal owner. Another notable change made by the legislature was the substitution of the word “animal” for “beast” because this further restricted the scope of the statute. A “beast” is arguably a subset of animals and therefore the change is a restriction on the statute’s applicability. Compare Oxford Dictionary (defining beast as “an animal, especially a large or dangerous four-footed one.”) with Merriam Webster Dictionary (defining “animal” as “a living thing that is not a human being or plant.”). Nevertheless, despite these changes, the 1854 law still appeared to apply broadly to “any horse, cattle or other beasts of another person” that was “kill[ed], maim[ed] or disfigure[ed].” However, the Minnesota Supreme Court took a much narrower view of the statute’s application in U.S. v. Gideon, 1 Minn. 292 (1856).

In U.S. v. Gideon, the defendant, Peter Gideon, was convicted of “willfully and maliciously killing” a dog by shooting it with a pistol. Upon review of the conviction, the Minnesota Supreme Court interpreted the animal cruelty statute and determined that dogs were not included within the term “beasts” and thus fell outside the scope of the statute. Gideon, 1 Minn. at 296. The court stated that the only animals protected by the statute were those who had “intrinsic value,” such as oxen, swine, and cows. Moreover, it held that the trial court erred by instructing the jury that it could convict the defendant based on his malice toward the dog or its owner. The court held it was necessary to prove malice toward the owner of the animal––malice toward the animal alone was insufficient. Therefore, in the early days, the animal cruelty laws were narrowly defined and applied, and only those individuals who harmed another person’s animal with “intrinsic value” and with malice toward the owner, could be convicted.

Minnesota’s Anti-Cruelty Standard

In 1905, the Minnesota Legislature redrafted the animal cruelty law to resemble its current form. The 1905 Act began with several important definitions, which are still in effect today. Minnesota Statutes section 343.20 provides that an animal is “every living creature except members of the human race.” Minn. Stat. § 343.20, subds. 2; see also Rev. Laws ch. 102, 5152 (1905) (similarly defining animal). In addition, it defines cruelty or torture as “every act, omission, or neglect which causes unnecessary or unjustifiable pain, suffering, or death.” Minn. Stat. § 343.20, subds. 3 (emphasis added); see also Rev. Laws ch. 102, 5152 (1905) (similarly defining these terms). These definitions must be read in tandem with Minnesota Statutes section 343.21, which makes it a crime to:

[O]verdrive, overload, torture, cruelly beat, neglect, or unjustifiably injure, maim, mutilate, or kill any animal, or cruelly work any animal when it is unfit for labor, whether it belongs to that person or to another person. . . .[;] deprive any animal over which the person has charge or control of necessary food, water, or shelter . . . .[; or] willfully instigate or in any way further any act of cruelty to any animal or animals, or any act tending to produce cruelty to animals.

Minn. Stat. § 343.21, subd. 1 (2014).

From the early twentieth century forward, the animal cruelty provisions largely persisted in the same form until 2001, when Minnesota Statute section 343.21 was amended to increase the penalties for certain types of animal abuse. The penalty increases in severity based on whether the defendant: (1) has been previously convicted of torture or cruelty; (2) violates the cruelty or torture provisions and causes substantially bodily harm, great bodily harm, or death to a companion animal; or (3) harms a service animal without justification so that it is unable to perform its duties, causes substantial or great bodily harm to the animal, or causes the animal’s death. In addition, there are specific elevated penalties for defendants who violate the cruelty or torture provisions and cause substantial bodily harm, great bodily harm, or death to a companion animal with the intention of threatening, intimidating, or terrorizing another person. Every violation of the animal cruelty statute except those specifically set out above remains a misdemeanor offense. Therefore, because the elevated penalties attach only to violations of the torture and cruelty provisions, the definition of “cruelty or torture” set out in Minnesota Statutes section 343.20, subdivision 3, becomes central to the prosecution of these crimes.
Upcoming articles in the series will discuss the Gerard v. State decision and examine the impact the decision may have on the “unjustifiable” standard. And finally, I will examine how the “unjustifiable” standard could be improved.

If you have been injured by an animal or are having problems with a pet in your neighborhood, call Meuser Law Office, P.A. to discuss your options. The protection of your property and family is important, but laws also serve as an important counter-balance in our society. At Meuser Law Office, P.A. we understand this balance and are happy to answer your questions.