Animal cruelty on social media is difficult to investigate and charge, experts say

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When a popular YouTube “life vlog” host pranked her Doberman pinscher puppy in August, she ended up the subject of a Los Angeles Police Department investigation for animal cruelty.

Brooke Houts’s controversial video has since been deleted, but it didn’t stop people from sharing the scenes that riled her audience.

Houts hosts a YouTube channel with videos about her life. Her videos can vary wildly in topic, but the six most recent videos are about her Doberman puppy. In the video where Houts was accused of mistreatment, she told her audience that she was going to put plastic wrap on her door, have her dog run out and “just see what he does.” She’s later seen slapping the dog in the face, pinning him down, yelling “stop,” and forcibly pushing him away. She also appears to spit on him.

On Twitter, Houts posted a lengthy apology for her actions, where she stated that she is not “a dog abuser in any way, shape, or form,” she wrote. She also said she did not spit on her dog in the video and that she and her family were in the process of getting him training.

Despite significant public outcry on social media over Houts’s actions, the Los Angeles Police Department told BuzzFeed News that its Animal Task Force looked into the matter and “determined it didn’t rise to the level of animal cruelty.”

Houts did not respond to interview requests.

Houts’s case is only a recent example of what some have called “an animal abuse problem” on social media — including YouTube, Instagram, or other places where people can amass hundreds of thousands of followers.

A week after Houts’s video caught attention, a teen girl found herself under investigation when she filmed herself putting her dog in the clothes dryer on Instagram Live. In the video, she turned on the machine and loud thuds were heard as she clapped her hands and laughed. The dog runs out of the laundry room once the dryer door is opened.

The girl is a minor and will not be identified, according to the Lewisville Police Department in a Facebook post. Police said the case was being investigated as a cruelty to non-livestock animals.

Since at least 2008, the trend in public opinion has favored furry companions, according to Gallup. But animal protections vary across states, experts say, and they haven’t necessarily kept pace with the shift in opinion.

David Favre, professor of property and animal law at Michigan State University, said what constitutes animal abuse varies by the language in the laws in each state. Cases involving bruising an animal or breaking its skin can be grounds for someone to be prosecuted, he said.

On the other hand, smacking and pushing might be disrespectful, but it’s not necessarily illegal, he said.

“There’s no law that requires you to respect your animal,” Favre said. Disrespecting your pet is “not a criminal act.”

Favre said there’s been a significant cultural shift within the last decade around animals as more people have pets in the home and view them as children. There has been an increase in the number of households with beloved creatures. About 67 percent of households have a pet, with dogs and cats leading the pack of most common pets, according to the American Pet Products Association.

The viewers of videos like Houts’s could be “expecting a level of treatment more appropriate to a child,” he said.

But the public’s love of animals hasn’t translated to laws protecting them, according to Jessica Rubin, clinical professor and director of the University of Connecticut’s animal law clinic.

Common statutory categories of animal cruelty include affirmative acts of cruelty, failures to act and intentional failures to act, according to Rubin. Failure to act could include not feeding or sheltering an animal, she said, but the intention of someone is often hard to prove as it depends on the state of mind of the offender.

In some statutes, there are exemptions for certain species, such as agricultural animals or animals used for research, she said. But places such as slaughterhouses and laboratories aren’t automatically exempt.

Rubin said most statues have categorical exemptions for standard industry practice but treatment of animals that deviate from standard practice can still be prosecuted as animal cruelty, she said, pointing to videos of people kicking chickens or beating pigs as examples of departures from industry norms.

Some states do have laws regarding standards for animal care, offer immunity for veterinarians who report suspected animal abuse and allow courts to order that convicted abuser don’t own or live with animals, according to Rubin.

“Our cruelty laws need to catch up to our current relationship with animals,” Rubin said, “to reflect that they are not just property but that they are beings that experience emotions and have both a reliance on humans and a special bond with humans.”

Ashley Byrne, associate director of campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said it was important for the organization to bring attention to Houts because of her rather large social media following. PETA called for YouTube to remove Houts from their platform when the video surfaced.

“If she’s going to be using her platform to broadcast abuse of her dog, she absolutely doesn’t deserve to have her platform,” she said. “She’s setting an example that it’s okay to inflict this kind of cruelty in an animal’s life.”

But counter to the idea that social media gives animal abuse a platform, Byrne also noted it has helped improve awareness about animal cruelty as more people are able to post their witness to abuse although it’s the same space that showcases questionable behavior.

Last week, a man was arrested for punching a dog three times in a video, according to the Miami Herald. In July, Twitch streamer Alinity Divine had to apologize for throwing her cat over shoulder during a live stream, according to The Daily Dot.

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