Oregon’s Jeff Merkley working to stop ‘crush videos’ that show animal torture

Just over a decade ago, Congress passed a law banning depictions of animal cruelty. The law was intended to crack down on so-called crush videos, which typically show women killing small animals by stepping on them with stiletto heels.

Animal rights activists say the law, passed in 1999, helped keep the videos from being sold to sexual deviants.

But in April, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the law. In an 8-to-1 ruling on a case involving trade in dog fighting videos, the court determined that the law was so broadly written that it violated First Amendment rights of free speech.

So now, with a wave of crush videos reappearing on pornographic and other illicit websites, Congress is moving to ban sales of the videos for good. The House passed legislation in July, co-authored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, that narrows the 1999 law by exempting videos on hunting and fishing, for example, or showing customary veterinary and animal husbandry practices. The Senate is working on a version of its own.

“All Americans can understand that the deliberate and illegal torture of animals should not be turned into a video for sale and commercial production,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who’s sponsoring the Senate proposal along with two Republicans, Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Richard Burr of North Carolina.


U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon cuddles with Izzy, a German Shepherd-Labrador mix up for adoption at the Oregon Humane Society, following a news conference about crush videos. Merkley and two Republican senators, are working on legislation to ban the videos, which often show women torturing and killing small animals with stiletto heels.

Merkley, at a news conference Thursday at the Oregon Humane Society, said he expects debate on the proposal in the next few weeks. The sooner a new law is passed, he said, the better.

“We’ve seen a resurgence of these crush videos,” Merkley said. “We want to shut down the practice as soon as possible.”

Animal welfare advocates applaud the bipartisan push.

“It’s a gap in the law that definitely needs to be fixed,” said Scott Heiser, a former district attorney in Benton County who now works in Portland for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which focuses on changing laws. “They’re disturbing. The content is graphic, unbelievably cruel and sadistic.”

He said the animals in the videos — anything from mice to hamsters to kittens and puppies — are often taped down and that cameras are trained on their faces, showing the terror of torture.

The videos are made all over the country, Heiser said. But prosecutions are rare. “It’s difficult to catch these people,” he said.

State animal cruelty laws in Oregon and across the country ban the torture of animals, making the practice depicted in the videos illegal. But the problem, from a prosecution standpoint, is that perpetrators must be snagged in the act. The videos don’t have credits and faces aren’t shown.

“They’re made in clandestine situations and unless you are serving a warrant for something else you’re just not going to find this stuff,” Heiser said. “And with an iPhone, you can shoot a crush video in high definition.”

Legislation banning their sale would allow law enforcement to crack down. “It’s making the marketplace so risky that it will reduce demand,” Heiser said.

The challenge for Congress is writing legislation that will stand up to court tests. “It’s a murky area,” Merkley said. “We want to make sure we have the best chance possible for passing a constitutional test.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee is working out its approach, which might focus on a definition of obscenity or center on animal cruelty.

However the proposal is written, the Oregon Humane Society says it represents another step toward preventing violence against animals — and people.

“These crush videos represent an aspect of violence in our society that is especially dangerous because animals are defenseless,” said Kris Otteman, director of shelter medicine at the humane society. “And there is really good statistical research showing a link between animal abuse and animal neglect and neglect and abuse towards people, especially domestic violence.”

— Lynne Terry, OregonLive.com

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