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Animal Cruelty Investigations: Trial By Media

Animal Welfare Legislation Queensland Law RSPCA Inspectors Article taken from The Biscuit magazine
There are several ways that media and social media can have a direct impact in animal cruelty cases under investigation.

This article is from The Biscuit magazine.

It’s normal to get angry, frustrated and saddened when we see animal cruelty. It’s normal to want to see justice done. There are several ways that media and social media can have a direct impact in animal cruelty cases under investigation. 

When some cases come to the attention of the wider community, it has an immediate impact on RSPCA resources and workload.

RSPCA Queensland Prosecutions Officer, Tracey Jackson says, “One common example is where people take photographs of underweight horses and share these on social media, encouraging people to report it to the RSPCA. Or a video of a person abusing an animal goes viral and the RSPCA gets hundreds of reports.”

As well-meaning animal lovers, we want action taken, but it only takes one report of animal cruelty or neglect for investigations to commence.

Tracey continues, “People believe that multiple reports somehow ensure that the complaint is investigated and the offender is prosecuted, or they write to RSPCA asking for explanations and updates.”  

Sadly the RSPCA simply does not have the resources to respond to every enquiry and when viral animal cruelty cases circulate, that can mean that Inspectors are tied up at a computer rather than on the road investigating animal cruelty reports. 

The number of complaints received makes no difference to the way cases are investigated, the timing of the investigation, or the outcome. What is important for all animal cruelty cases is the quality of that information.

“Of course there are those cases where we are grateful for the assistance of media and social media in helping us to identify offenders, locations of offences and witness accounts,” Tracey says.
 
But there is another side to this, where influences can actually become detrimental to cases. “The ‘flaming pitchforks’ impact of media and social media, where people form a virtual lynch mob, demanding blood, attacking and harassing the offenders personally, sometimes publishing their addresses and encouraging others to take the law into their own hands. If this takes place in the lead up to sentencing, or if it is apparent in court that there will be significant media coverage of the case, then a court will often take account of this ‘extra curial’ punishment dealt out to the offenders by the community via social media,” Tracey says.

If this happens, courts reduce the penalty they would otherwise impose, on the basis that the offender has already been punished, or is likely to be further punished, by the embarrassment and harassment in the public arena.

We saw reduced penalties handed down because of this reason in the case of the possum killers. Both men were only sentenced to a year’s probation with no convictions recorded. Hunter Jonasen reoffended during his period of probation, committing an unprovoked serious attack on a young man in Fortitude Valley. Jonasen was re-sentenced for the original animal cruelty offence. The Magistrate sentenced him to two years’ probation and had a conviction recorded for the animal cruelty. He was prohibited from possessing any animals for 2 years, and ordered to receive psychiatric help. The Magistrate expressed concern that this man’s animal cruelty offending was a strong indicator that without early intervention, he could end up being a serious risk to members of the community.

In this particular case, social media had helped catch the offenders by identifying the culprits in the Snapchat footage, but it had also helped “punish” them. Because of that, they initially received a reduced penalty for their actions.

So how should the community act on social media when these cruelty cases are brought to light and go viral? 

Tracey explains, “People should show support for the RSPCA and the investigation. They can donate, offer assistance, and voice their opinion in general terms about animal cruelty and neglect, and the importance of bringing offenders to justice. They should be the voice of reason on social media — encouraging people to stay calm, act rationally, and not to give the courts any excuse to lessen the penalty for the offenders.”

If you see animal cruelty or neglect you can report it to the RSPCA. Offender and animal information, photographs, video, addresses and witnesses all help. However it is important to never put yourself into danger or trespass to obtain extra information.

We can all play a part in ensuring that animal cruelty offences are taken seriously. To ask for tougher animal cruelty sentences handed down in court, contact your local MP. 

Emma Lagoon
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