Remembering Sydney’s Bunny Killer: The Crime of Aggravated Cruelty to Animals

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By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

The Rocks police began surveilling a Sydney finance company director in August 2005, after officers received a tip-off from a local pet store owner, who’d noticed marks on the man’s face “consistent with rabbit scratches”, as he was purchasing one using his company credit card.

At the time, police were already investigating the circumstances surrounding a number of skinned and mutilated dead and dying rabbits that began turning up in a Sydney CBD laneway, close to Circular Quay, in early July that year.

In September, Brendan McMahon was arrested at his Tamarama home. The 36-year-old was charged with 18 counts of aggravated cruelty to animals, two of cannabis possession and one count of bestiality, which was later dropped over a lack of evidence as to what was used in penetration.

A psychiatric report found that McMahon – who co-owned his business with Jason Meares: brother of Jodhi Meares, former wife of James Packer – believed he was communicating with the rabbits via his “third eye”, whilst being under the influence of methamphetamine.

Magistrate Ian Barnett found McMahon guilty on all charges. In July 2006, he was sentenced to 16 months prison, with a non-parole period of 12 months. His Honour said no one should be allowed to commit such offences and get away with them by stating they were “using ice at the time”.

Aggravated animal cruelty

The crime of aggravated cruelty to animals is set out under section 6 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 (the Act). It’s an offence that can lead to an individual being imprisoned for up to 2 years and/or fined $22,000, whilst a corporation can be fined $110,000 over the offence.

Section 4 of the Act outlines what constitutes aggravated animal cruelty. These are acts that lead to the death, deformity or serious disablement of an animal, as well as ones that cause an animal to be “so severely injured, so diseased or in such a physical condition that it is cruel to keep it alive”.

This section of the legislation defines an animal as an amphibian, a bird, a fish, a mammal – other than a human – or a reptile. It also includes crustaceans, but only in a place where food is being prepared, offered or sold for retail consumption, such as a restaurant.

An individual is therefore charged with aggravated cruelty – as opposed to the lesser crime of cruelty to animals – for quite extreme cases. These crimes are categorised as summary offences and are dealt with in the NSW Local Court.

In its June 2017 report, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) NSW provided figures that show over the year 2016-17, there were 14 prosecutions of this offence carried out in this state. These involved six dogs, four cats, a cow, a camel and a bull.

Starved to death

As an example of aggravated animal cruelty, the RSPCA provided the details of a case involving a Baulkham Hills greyhound trainer who pleaded guilty to one count of the offence in Parramatta Local Court on 18 May 2017.

The trainer was charged over the death of “his severely emaciated female brindle greyhound named Milkshake”. A veterinary examination of the canine found that she had been suffering from severe dental and kidney diseases, which were avoidable.

The vet related that the greyhound had died as a result of being starved and denied dental treatment. And the trainer was fined $1,000 for aggravated cruelty against the dog, as well as $400 for failing to provide her with veterinary treatment.

Anti-cruelty laws

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 is accompanied by two sets of regulations: the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (General) Regulation 1996 and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Animal Trades) Regulation 1996. These provide further guidance relating the provisions of the Act.

Along with cruelty offences, the Act details a number of other crimes in relation to neglect, confinement, abandonment, failure to act in certain circumstances, inappropriate use, fighting and baiting, as well as hunting and trapping.

The anti-cruelty laws contained in the Act have been commended for outlawing certain acts being perpetrated against animals, but they’ve also been criticised for providing more protections for some animals, while leaving others with less.

These criticisms are in regard to the fact that these laws provide greater protection to companion animals, such as cats and dogs, while offering significantly less protection to farm animals, laboratory animals, and to those deemed as noxious or feral.

Lenient penalties  

Any individual or corporation can be prosecuted under the provisions of the Act. Some offences attract a higher penalty for corporations. And for the purposes of the Act, the “owner” of an animal includes a joint owner.

The laws also apply to the Crown. Although, they cannot be used to prosecute cases relating to the use and handling of police horses or dogs. And neither do they apply to drug detection dogs used by Corrective Services NSW officers.

And, as Sydney lawyer Katrina Sharman has pointed out, under NSW laws, the “social deviants” being prosecuted for crimes “often as bloody and violent as the worst crimes against women, children and other vulnerable people” get off with comparatively lenient sentences.

Freeing the rabbit mutilator

As for Brendan McMahon, he appealed his convictions to the NSW District Court in November 2006. His criminal defence barrister submitted that his client had a “disease of the mind” for which his use of cannabis and ice had acted as a trigger.

Judge Peter Berman found that the magistrate had made an error in rejecting McMahon’s mental illness defence, and at the times he’d tortured and killed seventeen rabbits and one guinea pig he’d been suffering from a psychosis he was predisposed to, which was set off by the drugs.

And on 3 November, the judge ruled that the rabbit killer was not responsible for his actions, the appeal against the aggravated animal cruelty charges was allowed, the convictions were quashed, and he ordered that McMahon be released from prison.

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