What Constitutes Justifiable Action under the Minnesota Animal Cruelty Statute?

A woman strokes a cats chin softly.

The law in Minnesota regarding dog bites is favorable to dog bite victims. The law covers bites and other injuries, incorporates an expansive definition of “owner,” including someone who merely harbors or keeps the dog, and it is not subject to the comparative negligence defense. Related to the concept of dog bites, is that of animal cruelty, and you may be surprised about what the court has to say in reference to when you may (and may not) take action to protect yourself, your family, and your property from a trespassing animal. This is part one of a five-part series. In this five-part blog series, I will explore what is considered a “justifiable action” under the Minnesota animal cruelty statute.

At first blush, the difference between a justifiable and unjustifiable action may appear to be clear-cut. We hear many heinous stories of animal abuse and torture in the paper, on news programs, or social media. For example, no prudent defendant would argue that the actions were legally justifiable in a situation where a man broke into an ex-girlfriend’s home, stabbed her cat in the throat, and left the body for the former lover to discover after she returned home. These actions would clearly not be justified; however, in some cases the line between what is justifiable and what is unjustifiable is blurry.

This blurred line is exemplified by an animal cruelty case occurring La Cresente, Minnesota. In this case, the Bailey family was frustrated by a neighbor’s dog named Sadie, who routinely wandered into their backyard, foraged in the garbage, defecated on their property, and stole steaks and other items off their grill. The dog also reportedly growled at members of the Bailey family. Mr. and Mrs. Bailey felt they needed take action to protect their children and property so Mr. Bailey left a bowl of food scraps, which were laced with antifreeze, outside by the grill. This was done in hopes that it would make the dog sick and would deter further trespassing by the dog. However, after Sadie ingested the scraps she suffered a number of violent seizures and had to be euthanized the following day. The Baileys were charged with felony and gross misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty in connection with Sadie’s death. In this case, the question becomes a closer one––were the Baileys’ actions justified because the dog trespassed, stole food, and made a mess in their yard? The court said no––the Bailey’s actions were unjustified.

Moreover, the factual case presented in Gerard v. State may blur this line even further. Here, the question was whether a property owner was justified in shooting a cat that posed a threat to the chickens kept on his property. Did the cat’s potential aggression toward the chickens make it justifiable for the defendant-landowner to shoot the cat to protect his or her property? These are difficult questions to answer under the present legal framework and will be explored at length in this series of blog posts.

The next article in the series will explore the history of the Minnesota animal cruelty statute and how “unjustifiably” has been interpreted by the courts. Upcoming articles 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 animal cruelty law also serves as an important counter balance in our society. At Meuser Law Office, P.A. we understand this balance and are open to answering your questions.