"All animals are created equal

But some animals are more equal than others"

What brings this commandment from George Orwell’s classic novel Animal Farm to mind is the recent sentencing of Santiago Cabrera on charges of stealing and slaughtering horses for their meat in Florida. Cabrera entered a guilty plea to a batch of serious felonies in November and on December 17 he was sentenced in a Miami-Dade County Circuit Court to five years in prison.

Five years in state prison is not a walk in the park, but Cabrera actually got off easy with his guilty plea. He was facing two counts of burglary while armed (a felony in the first degree with a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison); two counts of grand theft (also felonies in the first degree); conspiracy to commit burglary (a felony in the second degree with a maximum sentence of 15 years); two counts of "killing or aggravated abuse of registered breed horses or cattle" (second degree felonies); two counts of possession of burglary tools (third class felonies with a maximum sentence of five years); and one count of "breaking or injuring fences" (also a third degree felony). Cabrera was looking at a lot more than five years if he had gone to trial and lost.

What’s most interesting about the charges against Cabrera is one of the laws he violated. Florida Statute § 828.125(1) prohibiting the killing or aggravated abuse of a registered horse or cow reads:

"Any person who willfully and unlawfully, by any means whatsoever, kills, maims, mutilates, or causes great bodily harm or permanent breeding disability to any animal of any registered breed of the genus Equus (horse) or genus Bos (cattle), or any registered hybrid of the specified genera, shall be guilty of a felony of the second degree . . ."

What’s interesting and puzzling about the statute, aside from the fact that legislators actually know the correct plural of the Latin word "genus," is the added protection granted by law to a registered horse over an unregistered animal. Killing an unregistered horse is a first degree misdemeanor unless the killing is "cruel," in which case the offense is a third degree felony. The statute is silent about the classification of the offense for killing a horse that is eligible for registration but, through no fault of its own, has not been registered by the owner.

Arguing that killing a registered horse is somehow worse than killing an unregistered animal makes no more sense than arguing that the murder of a banker is more deserving of severe punishment than the murder of a homeless person. It is not necessary to compare the lives of people and horses to see that the status of the victim should not determine the severity of a criminal punishment.

The value of the animal killed does matter in a civil lawsuit for damages to property. A successful plaintiff in civil court should be awarded the replacement cost of the damaged property, which in all likelihood will be higher for a registered horse than for an unregistered one. But equating the registration status of a horse, and by implication the monetary value of the animal, with the punishment meted out for the horse's death has no place in a criminal prosecution.

What’s wrong is wrong.

Should killing a registered horse be punished more harshly than killing an unregistered animal? Or are all animals created equal?