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Legal Matters: Protected from cruelty, animals have little in the way of legal rights

They were in the parking lot of Cranberry Square Shopping Center, Westminster on a recent Friday morning: a mother duck and eight ducklings. Mom hopped up on a curb divider and the little ones struggled to follow her.

A small group of humans who gathered agreed that a parking lot opposite a supermarket in a busy shopping center was no place for a duck family. One member of the group called the Humane Society of Carroll County. After a brief conversation, he reported back that the person he spoke with refused to send anyone to rescue the ducks. He reported being told that a duck family had been in similar circumstances before and that ducks with ducklings cross the parking lot every year.

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“We only come out if they are trapped in a storm drain, sick or injured in some way,” said Karen Baker, Humane Society executive director. Society personnel, volunteer firefighters and roads workers have rescued wild animals that have gotten inside houses or trapped in some way, she said.

“We’ve had turtles in pool filters and hawks trapped in nets,” Baker said.

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The reason for non-interference is that rescuers could inadvertently do more harm than good, she said. She surmised that mama duck was probably taking the ducklings to the pond where her flock hangs out. If humans transported them to a different pond, the duck “owners” of that pond would beat up the newcomers, the director explained.

The Humane Society was not violating the ducks’ legal rights by refusing to send help. Although some species are legally protected from kills, individual wild animals do not have any legal rights.

“Commentators ... say that Western laws, from ancient Babylonia to the present day, present a clear and unanimous view of the rights of animals. They have none,” according to Library in a Book, Animal Rights revised edition, by Lisa Yount.

The Agriculture article of the Maryland Code provides that animal shelters must have written veterinary care protocols for dogs and cats, but is silent on other rights. The state’s criminal law prohibits cruelty to animals, described as any living creature except a human being. It defines cruelty as, “the unnecessary or unjustifiable physical pain or suffering caused or allowed by an act, omission, or neglect, and includes torture and torment.”

The criminal code also establishes penalties for abuse or neglect of animals, holding dogfights or cockfights, or abandoning domestic animals on roads, in public places or on private property.

State law addresses attempts by some animal rights advocates to free animals used for research. The criminal code prohibits breaking into a research facility with the intent to: obtain unauthorized control over research property; alter or eradicate research property; damage or deface research property; move research property in a manner intended to cause harm to it; destroy or remove research property; or engage in conduct that results in the removal of research property. Violators could be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Her Legal Matters column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times. Email her at denglelaw@gmail.com.

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