Fox hunting was made illegal in the UK in 2003, but it hasn’t stopped people surreptitiously carrying on with the so-called sport, because apparently a game of football just doesn’t have enough blood (and if you’ve ever seen the fans clashing outside stadiums, you’ll know football has a fair amount of blood). This week brought us a particularly unpleasant insight to this already unpleasant activity, when two people were convicted of feeding live fox cubs to hunting hounds, which is apparently how the dogs are “blooded”. However, what has really set people’s outrage to full force is the fact that the two offenders have been given suspended sentences of 16 weeks and 14 weeks. The main culprit has been allowed to continue keeping animals, as barring him would have cost him his job, which is kind of like not taking a taxi driver’s license after a drunk hit-and-run because it would damage his career. The judge also explained the low sentence by saying that “I think the chance of any reoccurrence is minimal”, which is perhaps an even stranger point of view, because most of the time you don’t get to avoid punishment for a serious time by promising not to do it again.
This incident has stoked a public debate that’s been simmering for some time now – is the law far too lenient on people who commit animal cruelty, compared to other crimes? When you consider that people are routinely imprisoned for trying to get out of a speeding ticket by pretending they weren’t driving, the fact that somebody could viciously kill baby foxes in the process of practicing an illegal activity and not end up behind bars seems like a skewed value system. In August 2018, the government agreed to raise the maximum penalty for animal cruelty from six months to five years, which was heralded as a positive step forward by welfare charities, but it has yet to come into force. Even when (or if) it does, it would only be on the same level as the maximum possible sentence for fly-tipping, and still less than the seven year maximum for theft, meaning you’re less likely to receive jail time for animal cruelty than you are for swiping a pair of Primark jeans.
However, raising the maximum sentence to five years may be a moot point, because very few people are given the full six month maximum, even in cases of serious cruelty. A man in Sunderland was recently given 18 weeks in prison and banned for owning animals for ten years after making his pet whippet kill foxes, which led to the dog receiving vicious injuries that he did not seek veterinary aid for. Clearly not the smartest scumbag out there, the man posted videos of his activities online, which is how he was convicted. In a situation where there was irrefutable evidence of repeated sadism and neglect, it is hard to understand how this did not warrant the maximum sentence.
A report in Wales earlier this year found that just 8% of people convicted for animal cruelty in Cymru are sent to prison. Only 102 people were imprisoned between 2007 and 2017, compared to 300 who were fined, 294 given community service, and 224 given suspended sentences. Of those imprisoned, just two were given the maximum six month sentence. Forty-five were given less than a month. While each case obviously must be judged on its individual terms, those such as the case of two teenagers killing a cat by setting their dog on it in the street would seem like ones that are cruel enough to warrant a custodial sentence; yet they received only a suspended sentence. The maximum sentence could be a hundred years but it won’t make any difference if the courts are reluctant to even put people in prison in the first place.
With such lenient sentencing, it is not difficult to see how so many people confidently carry out illegal acts of cruelty to animals. People who engage in fox hunting are only going to be emboldened by the idea that they’ll only get a suspended sentence of a few months even if caught carrying out especially cruel actions. If the law is to act effectively as a deterrent, people need to start paying more severely for their crimes.