James White aged 21, a student in York pleaded guilty to causing unnecessary suffering to an animal.
When drunk, he fried his flatmate’s pet hamster. It was not established whether the hamster had died prior to, or as a result of, being placed into the hot frying pan.
Initially, James had pleaded not guilty, presumably on the basis that if the court could not be sure that the hamster was alive prior to being put into the frying pan, he could not be guilty of the offence. However District Judge Anderson indicated that James would be convicted even if the animal had died before it was placed into the frying pan.
Consequently, James pleaded guilty late. Normally, a late plea might attract only a 10% discount (see our explanation of guilty plea discounts here). However, it could be argued that until the legal position regarding whether James was guilty even if the hamster was already dead was not resolved until the last minute. Therefore, James may have been entitled to full credit as he had pleaded at the first reasonable opportunity once the legal position was made clear. We have no official report of the sentencing hearing and so this is mere speculation.
Animal Welfare Act 2006 s 4
To be guilty of the offence, it would need to be shown that James:
- Did an act (or failed to act) to a ‘protected’ animal
- Causing that animal to ‘suffer’
- Where he knew (or should have known) that the act would cause this suffering
- And that the suffering is ‘unnecessary’
A protected animal is defined in s2 as being any pet, or an animal that ‘is under the control of man whether on a permanent or temporary basis, or is not living in a wild state’.
It therefore seems somewhat strange that the District Judge ruled that even if the hamster was already dead, James would be guilty.
The sentencing provisions
The maximum is 6 months or a £20,000 fine. There is also a power to disqualify a person from owning, keeping etc. an animal.
The aggravating factors appear to be that his actions caused the death of the animal, the use of a weapon (the frying pan) and the fact that he was drunk.
Looking at the guideline, this was ‘one impulsive act’ resulting in ‘short term neglect’ – this would suggest it should be placed in the lowest category. However, because death resulted, and the lowest category states ‘little or no injury’, this is not appropriate. Similarly, James does not fit into the next category up (‘several incidents/medium term neglect’).
So, what is the right approach? Well the guidelines are not tramlines and courts often decide that cases fall between two categories. The cusp of category 1 and 2 appears to be a medium level community order (it being the upper limit of the range in cat 1, and lower limit of the range of cat 2).
What sentence was imposed?
The judge told White he was sentencing him on the basis the rodent died minutes before it was fried, when the defendant was handling it.
“It’s accepted now that there was rough handling of that animal but that it couldn’t be established that it was putting it in the frying pan and applying heat that caused its death.
The sentence was a community order with 120 hours of unpaid work. This constitutes a mid-level community order, which is at the top of the bottom category of the sentencing guidelines (see page 22).
The DJ said:
“Had that sadistic conduct been established I would be dealing with you in a far more serious way than I am.”
Picture from the BBC.