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Liz Carlisle. Cheyenne Cherry. Amanda Cheadle. Do those names look familiar? If you’re an animal advocate in the US or England, they probably do. In the past month, all three have been in court for perpetrating sadistic crimes against animals. Liz Carlisle of Ohio pleaded guilty to drowning two rabbits at a pet store where she worked. She received a $250 fine, will perform 120 hours of community service and is on probation for six months. Cheyenne Cherry, meanwhile, is serving two years in jail for roasting her friend’s cat in a 500-degree oven. The unrepentant New York teen stuck out her tongue and yelled, “It’s dead, bitch” to an animal activist in the courtroom. Then there’s Amanda Cheadle, whom the British press have dubbed “the Suitcase Puppy Killer.” Cheadle, a dog breeder in England, shoved 15 puppies in suitcases and locked them in a cupboard. Eleven died and four survived. Cheadle was sentenced to 20 weeks in prison — less than two weeks for every dog she killed. And just as I began writing this post, a judge in England announced he will not send two youths to prison for beating a baby deer to death.
While animal advocates are outraged by these sentences (or lack thereof), I was surprised that some activists are downright philosophical about them. Even more surprising is that these activists have all recently spent time in prison for nonviolent acts. Josh Harper, Peter Young and Andy Stepanian gave me their thoughts on the judicial inequity that is reflected in a system that seems to let cruel offenders off easy while meting out Draconian penalties to those campaigning to save lives.
“I guess because I’ve divested my faith in fair treatment from the justice system, I can’t say that it comes as a shock,” says Peter Young, who served two years in federal prison for liberating thousands of mink from fur farms. “Consider who gets the attention from the FBI and the police, the amount of resources they invest in investigating [animal activism] cases and who receives the harsh sentences. The disparity is striking.”
Peter believes the root of this disparity is the almighty dollar. “It’s pretty clear that we hold profits over life, and I really think that’s what it comes down to. The person who killed the cat wasn’t threatening anyone’s profit, whereas my restitution was $350,000. Because money rules everything, authorities are naturally going to come down harder on somebody who inflicts those kinds of losses on a legal business.”
Josh Harper agrees. “I suppose these cases are a reminder of how far we have to go as activists to change our culture’s priorities,” he says. Josh received a three-year sentence for being part of the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign. Officially, he was charged with “conspiracy to harass using a telecommunications device” — he had made two speeches in support of sending “black faxes” as a way to cause economic damage by wasting fax machine toner. Moreover, Josh and his codefendants were prosecuted under a now-outmoded version of the federal Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992, a piece of “anti-terrorism” legislation that, like the later Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, was designed to suppress the activities of animal rights advocates. “For conspiring to shut down an animal testing lab using electronic civil disobedience, I spent three years in prison and owe $1 million in restitution,” he says. “Meanwhile, people who commit violent acts upon thinking, feeling creatures are usually not punished at all. Some days that makes me feel anger, but mostly it just makes me feel determined.”
After serving two years and seven months for “conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act” as another member of the SHAC campaign, Andy Stepanian doesn’t believe incarcerating either social justice activists or animal abusers is the answer to society’s woes. “I keep getting held up on the fact that I don’t believe in the penal system,” he says. “I oppose the prison industrial complex and all forms of oppression. I don’t relish seeing a single piece of kindling thrown into that fire no matter how despicable the animal-abusing wretch is.” Andy views cruelty to animals as a sickness that is exacerbated when the abuser is behind bars. “I think we need to get proactive in healing our culture’s illnesses, and in turn these abusers — whom I see as symptomatic — will be a less-frequent phenomenon. That said, however, the disparity between the sentences serial animal abusers get and the sentences that nonviolent animal liberationists get can easily make you want to cry.”
All three activists agree the courts used their cases to deter other animal advocates. “They certainly intended for [the SHAC case] to be noticed,” Josh says. “A number of things make that clear, from their use of press conferences about the case to the way they took pictures of people who came to support us at court to their choice of defendants. This case was intended to be high profile and create a chilling effect on animal activism.”
“Yes, they made an example out of us,” adds Andy. “Let me make an example of an incident where a drunk breaks a window while leaving a bar in a disorderly huff. Then compare that incident to an activist who breaks a window of an unattended business that profits from animal abuse. Both cases on the municipal level are either malicious destruction of property — a misdemeanor — or criminal mischief — a low-level felony. But the way each of those cases is handled will be like night and day. The drunk may be expected to pay damages and get a reduced sentence for disorderly conduct or a lesser offense, while the activist risks having the indictment superseded federally with potential penalties under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. The judge sees fault in the system in regard to the drunk because the bar got the man drunk, and he realizes that the alcohol industry is a contributor to economy, and when enough people are under the influence, things like this happen. What the judge can’t explain is why a sober activist would risk her or his freedom for a species to which they cannot even directly communicate. The action is not just contrary to the property of the animal business targeted, but is also contrary to the entire system and culture at play. The system sees behavior like that of the direct-action activist’s as troublesome and threatening because it fits no accepted, or at least understandable, mold and it takes away economically. To someone who supports the system and does not care about animals, they see no benefit from an action like this.”
Peter echoes these thoughts, saying that authorities cannot comprehend an animal activist’s motivation. “Judges and prosecutors never seem to wrap their heads around the idea of a selfless crime. It’s almost like it causes their circuits to fry out, because it’s so outside their paradigm. They assign sinister motives, but they never acknowledge that this was about saving animals. What I think always gets lost is these prosecutors oftentimes don’t think this has anything to do with animals. I don’t think they’re looking at it for what it is: people trying to help animals. The FBI and prosecutors see it as a property crime.”
Let’s return, for a moment, to the issue of animal abusers who receive little or no punishment for their crimes. For a prosecutor’s insight, I turned to Scott Heiser, director of the Criminal Justice Program for the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF). A former district attorney, Scott likes nothing more than seeing animal abusers held accountable for their crimes. But he acknowledges cases — even clearly brutal ones — may not always get the attention they should, nor the outcome the public would like to see.
“The disparity between sentencings from within the animal cruelty caseload is very real,” says Scott. “A person who kills two rabbits at work gets a slap on wrist, while the roasted-cat defendant gets two years in jail. That happens all the time, even from within the same jurisdiction and even at times in cases before the same judge. There are many reasons for this, including the difference in the offenders’ prior criminal records; the level of remorse the court feels the offender has for his or her conduct; judicial bias for or against animal crimes cases generally; judicial bias for or against the type of animal at issue (house pet vs. ‘food animal’); the laws of the jurisdictions calling for different sentencing outcomes —compare sentencing options in Texas and Oregon and you’ll see a huge difference; the daily jail population at the time of the sentencing, a very real factor that many people overlook — judges get regular reports from the jail on the population, and those judges have to make early release decisions all the time to manage overcrowding; the sentencing ‘appeal’ of the victim family — for example, the little pony-tailed kid’s puppy killed versus the 35-year-old drunk’s marginally cared for backyard dog. There are tons of reasons. Some decry this as unjust and unfair and call for sentencing guidelines to ensure consistent treatment for similarly situated offenders. Others who have practiced in jurisdictions with sentencing guidelines will tell you that guidelines just don’t work because they divest the judge of the discretion to fashion truly just sentences on a case-by-case basis.”
Nevertheless, I think it’s important that we communicate with prosecutors and others our concern about animal abuse cases. District attorneys do care about public opinion, so when you hear of a crime against an animal, write to prosecutors and express your views. Also, letters to editors of your local paper help educate the public and bring awareness about animal issues. (ALDF is an excellent resource to find cases with animal victims.)
Finally, let’s remember the activists whose willingness to speak up for animals has cost them their liberty. “I went through a terrible ordeal in prison, and some of my friends are still inside,” says Josh. “In the struggle for animal equality, some of us are going to end up behind bars ― even if we are innocent, and even if our crimes are not as heinous as those perpetrated daily against billions of non-humans. While we must keep our focus primarily on the animal nations, let’s not forget our friends in the movement who are doing time for trying to advance our beliefs. Please consider writing to an animal rights or environmental prisoner.”