Animals are not people (although as I write this, our Dalmatian is lounging on the sofa, apparently engrossed in a golf tournament). But does this distinction mean that animals cannot be victims in a prosecution for animal neglect?

Two years ago, the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon executed a search warrant in response to an animal abuse/neglect complaint. Deputies seized 69 animals, including 43 goats, 24 horses, and two Border Collies. The animals’ owner, Arnold Weldon Nix, was arrested on 23 counts of animal abuse and neglect. Many of the animals were in terrible condition and a number of horse and goat carcasses were discovered on Nix’s property. As a result of the investigation, the prosecutor eventually charged Nix with 93 separate counts of animal neglect.

Cases like this one often are resolved through a plea bargain, but Nix elected to go to court instead. A Umatilla County jury convicted him on 20 counts of animal neglect in the second degree, with each guilty verdict representing a particular horse. Second degree animal neglect (which is defined as a failure to provide "minimum care" for an animal) is a Class B misdemeanor under Oregon law, with a maximum jail sentence of six months and a maximum fine of $2,500.

So far, the Nix case sounds distressingly familiar. Animals were neglected, someone was arrested and charged, there was a guilty plea or a guilty verdict at trial, the punishment for the offenses seemed light. Then things took a bizarre turn, and an alarming one for anyone who cares about animal welfare, when Judge Jeffrey Wallace imposed sentence on Nix.

Criminal cases are filed in the name of the jurisdiction, in this case Oregon, because the offense is a violation of state law. It is a technicality, and an important difference between civil and criminal cases, but the real victims of a crime are usually obvious—the individual who was mugged, the convenience store employee who was robbed, the driver injured by a speeding car, the person murdered, the animals which were abused or neglected. Many states even allow crime victims to make statements in court prior to a defendant’s sentencing.

It seems nonsensical to assert that an abused or neglected animal which was victimized in the real world is not the "victim" in a legal sense. But at Nix’s sentencing the defense argued that only people, corporations, and governments—and not horses and other animals—can be the victims of a crime. The judge agreed. According to a report from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Judge Wallace merged 19 of the 20 counts of animal neglect into one formal conviction on the theory that the State of Oregon was the only victim of Nix’s crimes. The horses were not the actual victims of Nix’s neglect, the judge said, at least for the purposes of consolidating all the individual counts into one conviction.

A decision from a single trial court does not establish legal precedent. The sentence is being appealed, with a decision expected sometime this summer.

Nix’s sentence actually makes an odd sort of sense if horses and other animals are nothing more than personal property, like refrigerators and stereos and automobiles. The fatal flaw with that simplistic reasoning is that every state already acknowledges that animals are entitled to legal protections not given to inanimate personal property. Animal welfare laws almost certainly need improvement, but even the weakest state statutes demonstrate a legislative understanding that animals are a different, and special, kind of property.

Did Judge Wallace get it right? Is neglecting one horse the same as neglecting 20 horses—or 200—because the state is the real victim of the crime?