Warning: Some images may be graphic due to the nature of the topic.

Animal Welfare in the United States


Animals and humans have coexisted for thousands of years around the world. Along with Native Americans, animals were among the first beings to inhabit North America. Americans continue to utilize animals as tools for agricultural purposes, entertainment, sustenance, and welcome them into their homes as pets. Today a popular question amongst the population of the United States is “do animals deserve rights?”. While there are plenty of arguments supporting both poles of that debate, it is known that vertebrate animals as well as some non-vertebrate animals are capable of feeling pain (Gary Varner, Which animals feel pain?) and fear from memory of potentially dangerous stimuli as humans do. Through observational studies, biologists and researchers such as Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, who wrote The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats as well as directed a project on the Sigmund Freud Archives in the 1980s, have witnessed animals displaying characteristics of emotions including depression, mourning, happiness, anger, jealousy, love, attachment, and curiosity. Animal welfare is about protecting these voiceless animals capable of feeling from the harmful doings of mankind, with laws acknowledging that they are responsive creatures that deserve humane treatment.


Animal Welfare Groups in America

Henry Bergh, founder of ASPCA
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

The first animal welfare organization of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), was chartered on April 10, 1866 after founder Henry Bergh's speech to politicians and other authoritative figures successfully persuaded them that animal rights is an important cause to give power to. Supported by the funds of some of New York's prominent citizens, Bergh's non-profit organization stood by its mission “to provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States” (ASPCA) and passed anti-cruelty acts that were enacted by 37 of 38 states of the Union. While Bergh's focus was on the treatment of horses and livestock, the ASPCA also sought for humane care of cats and dogs. “As published in the ASPCA's first annual report in 1867, David Heath was sentenced to 10 days in prison for beating a cat to death” (APSCA), showing that persecutions were made against individuals for single accounts of abuse even in the 19th century. Dog fighting was popular in the times of the ASPCA's rising, though it was difficult to charge someone in 1867 with dog fighting because they could be witnessed observing and betting on a fight, but often times were not observed actually provoking the dogs to attack each other therefore laws did not reach them. Along with physical abuse to animals, the issue of strays was in dire need of attention, with an estimated 300 strays picked up by dog catchers daily only to be thrown into the river for a slow, traumatic death. The abuses continued until the ASPCA took over animal control in New York City in 1894, and they continued to provide transport to strays and operate shelters until 1995 (ASPCA). Their work in the 20th century expanded to advances in veterinary medicine, incorporating the use of anesthesia in 1918 and later introducing radiology and pathology laboratories for use in their animal hospital (ASPCA). Their achievements have influenced the growth of other animal welfare and rescue organizations in the United States. By the start of the 20th century, the number of ASPCA-like groups was at 700, jumping to 1,000 by 1967 with membership numbers in the millions (Beers 4). Today, there are well over 7,000 organizations in the United States promoting the welfare of animals and prevention of cruelty, with more than ten million members helping to educate the public (Beers 4) .

Logo of HSUS

Humane Society of the United States

The largest animal welfare organization today is the Humane Society of the United States, which was founded in 1954 by
Helen Jones, Fred Myers, Larry Andrews, and Marcia Glaser (Beers 5). The was created to combat the cruelty of industrial farming conditions, puppy mills, exotics in captive and in the pet trade, the fur trade, slaughter of horses, wildlife abuse, and animal experimentation. The goal of the HSUS is to target national and global scale issues of animal abuse by working to enforce animal protection laws, and to educate the public on positive animal care and the importance of animals in our society. They
provide services such as shelter standards, animal control, adoption campaigns, and pet behavior education to local shelters and humane societies across the United States, and they support wildlife sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers.


Neglect and Physical Abuse of Domestic Animals

Domestic animals are often the main victims of abuse because they are the most frequently found in the United States with an estimated 382 million small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, birds, cats, dogs, horses, and livestock dispersed into 71 million households (Williams & DeMello 231). With 63% of Americans owning a pet, and all of them knowing someone who does, access to domestic animals is easy to come by. There are several reasons that people abuse animals:

  1. Neglect caused by ignorance or carelessnesslombardytheneglecteddog.jpg
  2. Entertainment/boredom
  3. To show off to friends
  4. Prove dominance towards another person
  5. Punishment or attempt to control an animal
  6. To relieve anger
  7. Sadism
  8. Practice for aggressive behavior
  9. Hatred towards a species or breed

Animal abuse generally falls into two categories, neglect (passive) and physical (active). Pet-abuse.com recorded a total of 1,085 animal cruelty cases in 2010, however many go unreported and many offenders do not get charged due to lack of evidence. The Humane Society of the United States recently reported that 57% of abuse cases are from intentional abuse, and 43% result from negligence (Williams & DeMello 255 ).

Physical Abuse (active)

In the same observational study mentioned above, the main types of physical abuse were shooting, striking, torture, and animal fighting (Williams & DeMello 255). Animal fighting, predominately with dogs, is certainly the most publicized form of intentional harm of animals, with the most well-known case involving NFL player Michael Vick (timeline). With the growth of media sharing sites such as Youtube, and more obscure sites specializing in videos and images of gore, animal abuse has started to become documented with home recordings. These shocking videos have depicted men in U.S. Military uniforms taking turns beating a ram to death with a baseball bat, teenage boys placing a kitten in a microwave then tossing it from a second story window, and boys duct taping rabbits and attaching dynamite to them. As unfortunate as it is that people in our country torture defenseless creatures with no mercy, the Internet has also allowed animal welfare groups like the House Rabbit Society have been able to report the images and videos to authorities, and in turn they have been able to track the abusers down.

Neglect (passive)

Neglect is as equally serious as physical abuse because it still involves emotional and physical suffering of the animals from not having needs met by the humans they rely on. Some owners get a pet and are not educated in proper care for that particular animal and do not know how to meet its health requirements with the correct type of diet, shelter, and interaction. This leads to malnutrition, illnesses from not being able to digest ingredients, vitamin deficiencies, and development of behavioral problems. Reptiles, birds, and small mammals have different needs than a cat or a dog and easily die at the hands of uneducated owners, though many cats and dogs are acquired by people who also do not invest time, love, and research into their companion. People will purchase animals only to leave them in a cage or tie them up all day without any company. Dogs that are left chained in yards are susceptible to heat stroke, and in serious cases when the dog spends the majority of its time chained, the skin will grow around the collar and leave a gash of raw flesh underneath from the friction. Animals who are not confined on a chain but allowed to roam outside also are at risk of getting lost, stolen, eaten, poisoned, hit by cars, and contracting diseases and parasites. Cats and dogs are not the only indoor pets who are placed outside by their owners; most rabbit owners keep their pets in backyard cages where they suffer from illnesses from insects, heatstroke, sores, and they also become anti-social. While these are poor ways to house an animal, some pets like snakes, birds, mice, and amphibians can not be safe as free-roam house pets. More often these animals are subjected to life in a small store-bought cages with little to keep them entertained, therefore pet owners need to be educated on creating a home that allows them to get exercise and live a normal life. Uneducated animal owners are not the only ones at fault for neglect. Other reasons could be that the owner loses interest in their pet and allows them to deteriorate without any human support, fails to provide veterinary treatment, or because the owner can not afford the costs and simply abandons them without even bothering to find a new home.

Moxie the Chihuahua was surrendered by her owners to their local pound with chemical burns to the muscle. They face criminal charges for animal neglect in Harris County.

Stevie the Blind Kitten when he first arrived in foster care. He was surrendered to a pound with a ruptured eye and the other with layers of tissue covering the entire eye. This could be caused by an untreated Upper Respiratory Infection (URI), which is easily treated by daily medicine prescribed by a veterinarian.

Phoenix, a 5-month-old Siamese kitten, was found abandoned in a wire cage with severe chemical burns and decaying flesh. He was treated and survived due to the work of the staff at Houston Cat Hospital.

Photos obtained from Buster's Friends, a foster-based rescue group in Houston, TX dedicated to saving the lives of Houston's abandoned pets.



Animal hoarding is a common type of abuse that has been brought to the limelight of America by the TV shows “Confessions: Animal Hoarding” and “Hoarders” which document real Americans that own large numbers of animals. The hoarder's mentality is that they are saving their pets by making their home into what they consider a sanctuary. In reality, the condition of these homes that have been discovered to contain hundreds of cats or dogs (although any type of animal can be hoarded) is unsanitary and unsafe for any inhabitant- animal or human. Feces and urine are not disposed of or contained in a litter box, water bowls are not clean, food is not readily available, and the animals can be completely feral yet be living in a house. Hoarders do not seek veterinary care for their pets because the average cost of caring for a cat or dog runs at about $800 each year, thus untreated contagious diseases spread quickly and the animals breed rapidly since they are unaltered. Dead and already decomposed animals are usually common in homes that are overrun by the pet population. Unfortunately, laws do not always prevent hoarding offenders from starting their animal collections again after having animals confiscated from their home, and oftentimes only a few of the animals confiscated are adoptable while the rest are euthanized. As the media and activist groups continue to shed light on the realities of hoarding and its consequences on the humans and animals involved, there is hope that it will be recognized by the authorities as severe animal abuse and punishment and counseling programs will be given to prevent recurrences.

Elective surgeries: For the owner's sake

A side of cruelty that many dog and cat owners are ignorant of is elective surgeries. These are surgeries that are not necessary for the animal's health, but rather because the owner wants it done for convenience or cosmetic purposes. Tail docking ear cropping are done on certain breeds of dogs to enhance the appearance of the dog so that it meets AKC breed standards, though most of the time the dog does not get shown. Veterinarians perform these procedures when the puppy is about two months old, though some do not offer cosmetic procedures because they are unnecessary mutilation of a dog's ears and tail. To avoid a veterinary bill, breeders will even dock tails using a rubber band which causes
Diagram of Declawing Procedure
severe pain and irritation from cutting off the blood circulation. Sometimes owners opt to get their dogs debarked as well, which involves the severing of the vocal cords in order to cease incessant barking, although barking is a dog's normal means of communication. For cats, declawing is done to stop scratching, also a natural behavior. Declawing is by no means pain free. It requires the first digit of a cats paw to be entirely removed, and there is still risk of infection and abnormal healing after the procedure. In a Pet-side.com poll, 55% of American cat owners agreed that it is acceptable to have a cat declawed, and it is legal in the United States while in England, Italy, France, Wales, Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, Brazil, Australia, and several others it has been made illegal along with other elective surgeries.

Exotic Animals in Captivity: Circuses, Private Zoos, and Exotic Pets

Clyde Beatty and lions and tigers he trained.
Ever since the 19th century, circuses have been a popular choice of American family fun. Among the circus clowns and trapeze artists, acts with exotic animals have been some of the biggest hits in the shows as trainers send the crowd into awe with the choreographed animals. Elephants have been the largest money-makers of the species involved because despite their size they have been taught to stand on two legs, balance on podiums, carry human performers, and balance on each other (Beers). However, people do not see what goes into making the animals submit to the trainers' commands. For instance, in the 1930s Clyde Beatty used the power of guns, whips, and chairs to subdue lions, tigers, polar bears, leopards, dogs, wolves, and bears to perform tricks in his circus acts (Beers). Unfortunately, force is still used today when training large wild animals. The Ringling Brothers circus is known to use whips, bull hooks, and electric prods to control animal behavior. Ringling Brothers has denied allegations in the past despite video evidence, and on their website they place tabs under “Amazing Animals” related to their animal care to ward off future concerns. Even with improvement of animal conditions, the big cats involved in their acts are still required to be kept within a cage at all times other than performances (Beers). Elephants and horses also have to be kept in stalls as the circus is a touring show, and travel is stressful on any animal especially for a long distance. Their entire career is spent living in an enclosure that does not resemble their natural habitat in any aspect. Circuses are detrimental to conserving the beauty of wild animals as the trainers attempt to extract the "wild" from them by training them repetitively to react to certain commands for human pleasure.

Roadside zoos
People often enjoy the idea of an exotic pet until they realize the animal they purchased is far from a pet and is a wild animal that requires costly diets and medical care by a doctor specializing in zoological animals. They purchase baby monkeys and flying squirrels with the concept of what they see in pictures, which is a cute and cuddly animal. The daunting responsibilities associated with wild animals as pets often results in owners attempting to give them to a zoo, and when that can not be done they sell or donate them to roadside zoos, such as the Snake Farm in New Braunfels, TX. Roadside zoos do not receive as much traffic as city zoos, therefore they do not have adequate funding for exhibits that closely mimic the animals habitat, and they do not usually have as many veterinarians and staff trained in exotic animal care to observe the animals.

Tragedies involving animals in captive

In the United States, there have been many attacks by animals in captive. Twenty-eight people have died from elephants alone, and thirteen people have died from encounters with big cats in facilities since 1990. A famous mauling occurred in an act with Roy Horn from the renowned Las Vegas show duo, Siegfried and Roy, and one of his trained white tigers, Montecore (CNN). Though Horn dedicated his life to raising and training his performing big cats, their undomesticated roots still remained. The cause of such attacks usually are from the keepers or trainers misjudging their designated animals as tame and docile. As described by Williams and DeMello in Why Animals Matter, it is normal for animals to exhibit territoriality, sexual behaviors, and aggression, which can be aggravated with the presence of humans or any other living thing. Even though these animals have spent their lives in captivity, they still have innate qualities that all individuals of their species possess because nature intended them to
Lions, leopards, tigers, bears, and wolves shot by Zanesville, Ohio deputies after being freed from an exotics farm in the October 19, 2011 tragedy.

use their instincts to survive. Keeping animals captive is dangerous for the animal too; many large animals have to be killed if they escape. Recently on October 19th, 2011, a tragedy occurred in Zanesville, Ohio shocked TV viewers and animal welfare activists nationwide. Terry Thompson, the owner of Muskingham County Animal Farm, had been having legal troubles with ownership of his exotic pets that ultimately resulted in the release of his animals and his suicide (Slate.com). A total of fifty-six animals escaped from their cages and pens that were left unlatched, however only six were able to be safely captured (Slate.com). Among those that were shot and killed were lions, cheetahs, leopards, mountain lions, wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, and a monkey. Unfortunately, all of these animals are on the endangered species list with several of their subspecies listed as well. The mass killing of these exotic pets as well as attacks on humans from stressed circus and zoo animals are evidence that wild animals can only thrive in free range areas where they can act upon their natural behaviors.

Ties between Animal Abuse and Violence

"Cruelty has cursed the human family for countless ages. It is almost impossible for one to be cruel to animals and kind to humans. If children are permitted to be cruel to their pets and other animals, they easily learn to get the same pleasure from the misery of fellow humans. Such tendencies can easily lead to crime." ~FredA.Mc Gran, 1895
Violence towards animals is often part of a pattern of criminal behaviors. American Humane statistics from American women's shelters across the nation show that 71% of the pet-owning women in their facilities had experienced their batterer threaten or harm their pet in order to lure the women into staying in the relationship and obey the batterer's wishes. This supports the correlation between pet abuse and violence, as 70% of the batterers had criminal histories containing other violent crimes (American Humane).The women “also reported that 32% reported their children had hurt or killed animals” (American Humane). While the percentage of children who have witnessed or experienced abuse and harmed an animal is still below 50%, teenagers who have killed people such as Andrew Golden, Kipkinkel, Luke Woodham, and Michael Carneal were found to have tortured and mutilated animals early before their killings to practice their sociopath behavior (Williams & DeMello 265). With these statistics in mind, it is important to take any form of animal abuse seriously as it may be a result of a psychological disorder.


"To inflict cruelties on defenseless creatures, or condone such acts, is to abuse one of the cardinal tenets of a civilized society - reverence for life.” -
Dr. Jon Evans

Though animals perish at the hands of humans each day from abuse, abandonment and neglect, there are also millions of Americans who care for their beloved pets and appreciate nature for what it is, and organizations that work towards strict laws on owning wild animals. The actions of individuals make a difference no matter how small a change it may seem, it may influence others to do the same and produce larger results. To ensure the safety of companion animals in the community, try researching pet care before adopting an animal and planning the costs and time required for it. Other ways to get involved in the community could be volunteering for a rescue group, fostering an animal from a rescue group, reminding fellow pet owners of the importance of spaying and neutering, as well as keeping an updated number of a constable or animal control center to report cruelty.
A particularly happy looking ferret!

Works Cited

Williams, Erin E. ., and Margo DeMello. Why Animals Matter: the Case for Animal Protection. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007. Print.

Beers, Diane L. For the Prevention of Cruelty: the History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States. Athens, OH: Swallow/Ohio Univ., 2006. Print.