The verdict came down last week, but the story is far from over.
On March 10, Judge George J. Pulver Jr. found prominent New York Thoroughbred owner and breeder Ernest Paragallo guilty on 33 separate counts of animal neglect. The charges arose from the April 2009 seizure of 177 horses, many severely malnourished, from Paragallo’s Center Brook Farm near Albany. It took almost a year for the case to proceed from seizure of the horses to a trial and verdict. That sounds like a very long time, but investigation and preparation for trial by both sides is a time-consuming process. Paragallo is free on bail, with sentencing scheduled in two months, on May 18. His attorney reported plans to appeal the guilty verdict.
Even if the judge decides to throw the book at Paragallo and impose the maximum sentence allowed by law, animal advocates may be disappointed with the result. The "book" in New York is not very heavy.
With the exception of "aggravated cruelty" to a "companion animal," which is a felony, animal abuse and neglect in New York is a Class A misdemeanor. Because horses are specifically excluded from the legal definition of "companion animal," neglect or abuse of a horse, no matter how cruel or heinous, cannot be prosecuted as a felony. The maximum sentence of imprisonment that can be imposed for a Class A misdemeanor is one year. This is called a "definite sentence," and by law in New York (and almost everywhere else) all definite sentences imposed at the same time must run concurrently. This means that the maximum jail sentence for one count of animal abuse or neglect is the same as the maximum for many counts.
The maximum fine for a Class A misdemeanor is $1,000 for each offense or, in Paragallo’s case, a total of $33,000. He also may be required to pay for the cost of caring for the horses. Paragallo reportedly has been represented by some 4,600 runners which have earned in excess of $20 million in purses, and he is part-owner of Unbridled’s Song, which stands at stud in Kentucky for a $100,000 fee. In that light, the maximum fine seems more like a drop in the bucket than a meaningful punishment. Nor are the maximum jail time and fines a requirement. A judge has the discretion to impose the maximums, or something less.
The disparity between potential punishments for abuse and neglect of a companion animal and a horse raises a question that is not limited to New York: Why should one species receive more protection than another? Is it because lawmakers think that companion animals suffer more when abused than farm animals? Or is it because companion animals are cuter and more sympathetic? Or is it because we, as a society, are more willing to accept abuse when the animal is tucked away out of sight on a farm instead of in our living rooms? Or is it because this is the way things have always been done?
None of these are satisfactory answers. The punishment for abuse and neglect should not depend on the species of animal harmed.