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The Scottish Government has announced the intention to introduce tougher sentences for animal abusers, seeking to increase the maximum prison sentence for the worst cases of animal cruelty to five years. The current limit is only one year, one of the lowest in Europe – but still twice the amount of time the worst offenders can receive in England and Wales, where the limit is six months only even for the most shocking cases. According to statistics from last year, dogs are the most likely victims of animal abuse.

The news was warmly welcomed by Battersea Dogs and Cats home. The charity launched a campaign calling for tougher prison sentences for animal abusers in England and Wales in February, and launched its Scottish campaign only last month.

Battersea’s Chief Executive, Claire Horton, said, “Battersea is thrilled by this news from the Scottish Government, as a five-year deterrent in Scotland could go a long way to help many animals that are the innocent victims of unacceptable cruelty.

“When we launched our campaign in Scotland last month, there was a momentum building amongst Scots in favour of tougher sentences and today’s news proves the Government is listening. They recognise 12 months is simply not enough for some of the horrific cases of animal cruelty that come through the Courts, nor does it deter other would-be animal abusers.”

While this is good news for Scottish animals and animal lovers, announcing changes is one thing and enacting them is another entirely. It wouldn’t be the first time Scotland backtracks on the subject of animal welfare: only last June Holyrood voted to relax what had been supposed to be a complete ban on tail docking, allowing it for puppies who would go on to become working dogs.

Battersea is hopeful that there will be no backtracking from this promise.  

“A five-year sentence means courts have the power to appropriately punish the most shocking offences of animal cruelty,” Claire said. “Battersea is urging animal lovers to respond to this call for action and contact their MSPs, to make it abundantly clear to all politicians that the Scottish public want to see five-year sentences become a reality. We commend the Scottish Government for their announcement today and Battersea is willing to help in any way we can to make this change happen. 

“Battersea is calling for tougher cruelty sentences north and south of the border. So, with Scotland now wanting to bring in five-year sentences, I sincerely hope this will make England and Wales now move to follow suit.”

Recent research has backed the call for longer prison sentences for animal abusers, highlighting a disturbing link between cruelty towards animals and other violent acts against other people. Since 2005, the report reads, 13,835 offences were committed by those with “a previous conviction or caution for animal cruelty offences”. This includes 1,437 violent offences, including 16 murders; 202 sexual offences; 97 cases of cruelty or neglect against children; 175 robberies and 5,557 thefts. Three out of four criminals convicted of animal cruelty offences already had at least one previous conviction or caution; about half had at least four previous convictions or cautions, and one in four had ten.

“Despite the seriousness of animal cruelty offences and the evidence of strong links to other crimes, serious penalties are vanishingly rare, with more than 92% of those found guilty avoiding prison,” the report reads.

It is striking to see how even the few who received prison sentences for animal cruelty were sentenced to serve an even shorter time than the six-month limit in England and Wales: penalties are generally only of a few weeks long, and many of them are suspended, meaning that the culprit won’t go to jail at all.

Increasing the maximum prison sentences for those responsible of the most shocking cases of cruelty is an important step forward, but it will remain of little use unless there is a shift in attitude and animal abuse is treated as the harrowing crime it is, with the perpetrators punished at the full extent of the law.

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