A North Carolina man who was evicted from his home last month is off the hook after neglecting to take care of his pet fish.
The New Hanover County District Attorney's Office didn't drop animal cruelty charges against Michael Hinson because they realized treating a man like a criminal over a pet fish was ridiculous. Rather, authorities were forced to let Hinson off after realizing he hadn't actually broken the law.
Hinson was evicted from his home on March 22. The 53-year-old did not take his pet oscar fish with him, so there was no one to feed it or provide fresh water. Several days later, cops showed up at the home and discovered the fish, which by that point was in poor health. The animal was taken to The Fish Room, a fish store in Wilmington.
"It came in with a disease, hole in the head, which is a parasite that is caused by poor water quality and malnutrition," Ethan Lane, a store employee, told The State. "It was a pretty severe case of the disease, which opens sores and lesions on the fish's head. It is an infection that can be fatal." The fish, who is now recuperating, had been surviving on cockroaches that dropped into the tank, Lane said.
Hinson, meanwhile, was arrested and faced three charges of misdemeanor animal cruelty and an additional charge of animal abandonment. "This is a life just like any dog or cat," New Hanover County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer told WECT. "If you harm or neglect an animal in New Hanover County, we are coming for you."
Actually, under state law, pet fishes are not the same. The state statute that deals with animal cruelty defines "animal" as "every living vertebrate in the classes Amphibia, Reptilia, Aves, and Mammalia except human beings." Notably, none of those categories include pet fish.
As a result, prosecutors had no choice but to drop the charges. "We take a very dim view of anyone who would abuse any creature great or small and appreciate [the Animal Services Division's] enforcement of the laws to protect vulnerable animals," District Attorney Ben David said in a press release. "Fish are not protected under these statues, therefore all charges against Mr. Hinson are dismissed."
Ultimately, it's a good thing that Hinson won't face criminal charges for neglecting his pet fish. This is not to downplay the fish's worth or the value of its life. Hopefully, it will continue to recover and eventually find a new home with an owner that will provide proper care.
But this appears to be a situation where common sense should have won out from the start, and where criminal charges were completely pointless. Remember, Hinson had been evicted from his home. It's not clear if he had somewhere to go, but regardless, fish tanks are not the easiest things to carry around. And I'd imagine that caring for one's oscar fish (which probably didn't cost much more than $50), would not be all that high on one's to-do list.
It's also worth noting that there's a big difference between actively torturing or otherwise hurting a pet (like a dog or cat), and neglecting to feed your fish because you're trying to find a place to live. Under North Carolina law, both are misdemeanors.
Again, this is not to say that Hinson was in the right, only that his offense was not criminal in nature. And treating him like a criminal would not have helped his fish recover. So while Hinson may not be winning "Pet Owner of the Year" awards any time soon, punishing him for abandoning his fish wouldn't have done any good.