Prof. Bernard E. Rollin on Mandatory Reporting of Animal Cruelty

Bernard E. Rollin is a philosopher widely recognized for his approach to animal rights, as well as his influence in politics. At Colorado State University, he holds the position of University Distinguished Professor. He is, in fact, a Professor of Philosophy, Animal Sciences and Biomedical Sciences, and a Bioethicist

In the piece below, Professor Rollin comments on the issue of Mandatory Reporting of Animal Cruelty

For much of the twentieth century, veterinary medical ethics, like human medical ethics, legal ethics, and indeed the ethical codes of all professions, were more concerned with intraprofessional interactions than with moral questions occasioned by the field in question. For example, in the 1970s, the AVMA code of ethics contained a plethora of references to advertising (for example how big one's sign could be), and not a single reference to convenience euthanasia.

Curiously, the one genuine ethical issue that was recognized even when many others received no attention was the issue of confidentiality. In the 1980s, I experienced a dramatic example relevant to this claim when I client brought a comatose dog into our veterinary hospital, and boasted that the inception of the coma took place when he struck the animal with a frying pan when the dog was barking incessantly. After the dog died, the pathologist performing the necropsy discussed the case with the veterinary students. One of the students worked for the local humane society, and asked the pathologist for the client's name so that he could be investigated for cruelty. When the investigation took place, the angry client protested to the school. Numerous clinicians expressed anger to the student and even threatened his future. They affirmed repeatedly that the only ethical issue inherent in this case was the violation of confidentiality. Clearly that is incorrect�there are issues of animal welfare, criminal behavior, the student's duty as a humane society employee while a veterinary student, the clinicians' threats etc. The issue was resolved by our creating a policy of mandatory reporting of suspected animal abuse.

The ethical question surrounding mandatory reporting of cruelty requires much conceptual clarification, since it, in fact, entails a number of distinct issues that must be disambiguated. In the first place, it is now well-known, based on 30+ years of social science research, that, as Thomas Aquinas shrewdly indicated in the Middle Ages, deliberate animal abuse is sentinel behavior for people who will go on to abuse or even kill humans. Many violent offenders, serial killers, spousal and child abusers, and students who open fire on their classmates, have early histories of animal abuse. Historically, the animal cruelty laws have existed more for Thomistic reasons of forestalling future cruelty to humans than to protect the animals; this is explicitly stated in numerous judicial opinions regarding these laws. For example, a judge refused to convict of cruelty a service club holding a tame pigeon shoot contest as a fundraiser, because the people involved were known to be good citizens.

Not every act that causes pain and suffering can be condemned under the cruelty laws � much pain and suffering is quite acceptable if it is not sadistic, deviant, or intentional, but instead arises in the course of animal use ministering to the necessity of man. For example, in Waters v. The People (1) it is stated that �The aim of this section is not only to protect the animals, but to conserve public morals [italics added].� Thus, one cannot prosecute scientists, toxicologists, or agriculturalists following commonly accepted practices for cruelty � such activities are exempted either by statute or judicial precedent. For example, in only one case � the notorious Taub case � was a scientist convicted of cruelty, because of a technicality, and that was reversed on appeal (2).

In the United States, as I discovered when I worked on what became US federal law for laboratory animals, it was necessary to write entire new laws governing research, not to extend the anticruelty laws. In the Arizona referendum of 2006 banning sow stalls, again, new laws were created � it was ill-conceived to even consider extending the anticruelty laws (3). As society grows ever more concerned with animal use, we see a proliferation of new laws, rather than attempts to extend cruelty laws. We also see most states in the U.S. raising cruelty to animals from a misdemeanor to a felony

Veterinarians, like physicians, teachers, nurses and others, are required by law to report suspected child abuse. Making veterinarians legally mandatory reporters of cruelty is very helpful to practitioners who suspect cruelty. It removes the moral dilemma associated with confidentiality of whether to report or not. In any case, it is absurd for veterinarians to be mandated to report suspected child abuse, but not animal abuse, at a time when society is growing ever-increasingly concerned with animal pain and suffering.

Bernard E. Rollin, PhD


Waters v. The People (1896) 23 Colo 33 [46 p. 112].

Morrison AR, Hand PJ. The Taub Case. Science. 1984;225:878. [PubMed]

Proposition 204, the Humane Treatment of Farm Animals Act. Available from Last accessed March 22, 2007.

Article added: 05/2008