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Sheep Farmer Fined For Killing Swans – How Anti-Cruelty Laws Are Never For The Animals

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An anti-cruelty case surfaced on BBC News a couple of days ago, providing yet another case study into how prosecutions for “cruelty” are based entirely on whether or not the law considers a certain animal use or treatment necessary in order to best serve the interests of the property owner. In this case, the property in question was land and subsequent crop damage.

A farmer from Kent, David Thompson, was fined £7,500 for killing two swans and injuring a third by “battering them around the head with his shepherd’s crook.” His farm is situated next to a bird reserve, and the court had been told that Thompson had experienced problems in the past with birds coming on to his land and eating his crops. The RSPCA are quoted as saying that “the swans would have suffered and it would not have been a quick death.” Interestingly – as is always the case – the emphasis is not on the fact that Thompson killed the swans, it’s on the level of suffering he inflicted on the swans.

The swans were on his land and represented a danger to his property. If this had been any other bird, he could have shot them instead of beating them to death, and the law would have protected his decision and considered such actions defensible based on the imminent threat to his crops; property owners possess powerful property rights over that which they own, nonhumans by law do not have any rights. The only reason it is not permissible to kill swans is because all unmarked swans in the UK are owned by the Queen under an ancient charter founded in the 12th century. As such, if you kill a swan, you’ll get a spanking from the Queen. Not because the Crown recognises the inherent value of swans – rather, they used to be (and perhaps still are) considered a delicacy amongst royalty.

Thompson was prosecuted not because his treatment and killing of the swans represented a violation of their fundamental rights, but because his treatment of them violated an overriding law set by the Crown, making him liable to be prosecuted for criminal damage. If swans were not the chosen delicacy of the royal family, he could have killed the birds with impunity. His treatment of them did not result in any subsequent human gain; the way he killed the swans did not contribute to net social wealth, or protect the value of his property. Aside from all un-marked swans belonging to the Queen, it represented a form of treatment that had no human benefit, and indeed decreased social wealth by afflicting society with (in his words) “unacceptable, totally appalling, and ugly scenes.”

His actions were condemned simply because he engaged in “cruelty” that did not serve a legitimate purpose in the eyes of the law. He also admitted to intentionally injuring the swans, which proved criminal intent – a prerequisite for any sort of sentence (it is usually not so easy to prove intent). Were he a bird farmer, raising unusual birds for slaughter and sale to niche markets, his treatment of these birds, and their subsequent deaths, would be protected by law if the treatment was “necessary” in order to facilitate the efficient exploitation of them. If such treatment was “necessary” in order to appropriate the birds sufficiently for human use, he could force starve them, de-beak them, confine them indoors their entire lives, and otherwise treat them in a variety “cruel” ways right up until slaughter, and the law would protect his decision in doing so. They would be his property and the law defers to the property owner to decide what treatment is “necessary” in order to efficiently exploit the animal.

Interestingly, Thompson is also a sheep farmer, and the court had been told that on the day of the swan-beating, it had already been a “traumatic day” for him because “he had been lambing and one of his ewes had been attacked and one of his lambs killed by a predator.” How utterly bizarre that we consider such a thing “traumatic,” while mere months down the line those very same lambs will be sent to slaughter by the same man who was fined for killing those swans. This is how anti-cruelty statutes work; they protect the decisions of property owners and work to solidify their property rights in animals by ensuring that “necessary” or “routine” treatment – often constituting treatment no different to how Thompson treated the swans – is protected by law.

For any animal advocates celebrating Thompson’s monetary damages, or who are perhaps angry that his punishment was not more severe, I suggest considering the fact that these cruelty statues that ostensibly serve animals, are not actually for the animals. Thompson is protected by law to slaughter hundreds, perhaps thousands of animals every year with his lambing operation. This is considered “necessary.” He slaughters two swans and injures a third on his land, and the law reprimands him, not because he killed the swans, but because his treatment of them had no corresponding human or societal benefits and their deaths violated the Crown’s ownership.

In celebrating such a sentence, we do nothing but assume the legitimacy of the system that views animals as nothing more than things with no moral value in the first place. From an advocacy perspective, the only way that this story is productive is by using it as a way of engaging with non-vegans who are upset by the deaths of these poor swans, and pointing out to them that the suffering and death they demand through non-veganism is no different to the suffering and death they object to. As abolitionist advocates, we should be dispelling the myth that anti-cruelty statues are somehow for the benefit of animals. If an animal does happen to benefit from one, it is never for the animals sake. The animal remains a thing subject to the absolute power of an owners property rights, even if the animal is not owned but merely unlucky enough to wander on to a farmers field.

For more information on the theory this article is informed by, please read Animals, Property, and the Law by Professor Gary Francione. Also, check out this essay discussing the failure of anti-cruelty laws in more depth.

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