We love lists and rankings.

Name a category — any category, no matter how oddball — and someone’s arranged it in order, top to bottom, identifying the 10 best, the top twenty, or some other arbitrary number, such as:

  • “The Top 12 Most Lavish Royal Weddings” (As opposed to those backyard/boombox/beer keg royal weddings).
  • “26 Creepy Photos That will Give You Nightmares” (Technically, wouldn’t just one be enough?)
  • “Sixteen Epic Photoshop Fails” (Only sixteen? More like six thousand).
  • “13 Famous Landmarks Zoomed Out That will Shock You” (It’s shocking this category even exists).

Here’s one such list that got a lot more media attention than it probably deserved: According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the state of Kentucky is the worst when it comes to animal protection laws. For the seventh consecutive year.

As APL’s news release phrased it, the Bluegrass State has shown “a chronic lack of the appropriate penalties, law enforcement policies and prohibitions needed to protect pets and farm animals living within its borders.”

For the record: the other states in the Worst Five are Idaho, Hawaii, Mississippi and North Dakota.

“While the majority of states are constantly analyzing and updating laws in order to afford animals some level of humane treatment and hope for a happy future,” the APL’s news release noted, “Kentucky has only passed two laws regarding the treatment of animals since 2008.”

Now, one of those laws, even by the activists’ own definition, has to be praised. In 2008, Kentucky lawmakers passed “Romeo’s Law,” making the torture of animals a class D felony, which seems appropriate and responsible — the punishment, that is, not necessarily the title. It’s certainly not the kind of legislation that pushes a state to the top (bottom?) of the list of most horrible animal protection states — seven times in a row.

No, it was the other law that apparently ticked off the folks at APL.

Ethical issues

The second law, passed in 2010, touches on a controversial legal area. It says, in part, that a veterinarian, like a medical doctor, may not breach patient confidentiality. In 2010, a judge in Warren County, Kentucky, ruled that “suspected abuse is not an exception to that [standard].”

Ostensibly, the law was designed to encourage pet owners to seek treatment for an injured animal, since they would be able to do so without fear of being accused of neglect or abuse. In practice, however, activists argued that a rancher or farmer would be shielded from culpability if they mistreated their livestock.

Of course, even if Kentucky’s only batting .500 in terms of “progressive” animal protection legislation, the state does have some other issues, activists claim, such as the fact that state law does not require shelter for domestic or farm animals, which arguably would open the door to endless litigation; and is the only state that doesn’t prosecute people who keep animals for the purpose of fighting, which is inarguably myopic. For someone who trains dogs for fighting to be arrested in Kentucky, they have to be caught in the act.

Which is pretty much the same situation I encountered some years ago in Chicago when I called the cops to report that a driver tried to run me over while biking to work: “Did a police officer witness the incident?” the 9-1-1 operator asked. “No? Then I can’t help you.”

The ethical issue here, though, is whether veterinarians should be held to the same standards as medical doctors? Should the human owners of their patients have the same privacy protections that people automatically receive when seeking medical treatments?

That seems like a gray area. Maybe not 50 shades worth, but a difficult issue to flatly embrace or reject, with nothing in between.

There is no value in regulations that prevent animals from receiving necessary veterinary treatment because their owners are worried about being charged with a criminal offense. On the other hand, serious (or serial) abuse of animals cannot be dismissed because a law shields the abusers.

Personally, I believe veterinarians ought to hold the same professional status as medical doctors, with similar privileges and protections. But there must also be mandatory reporting rules when serious abuse is obvious, just as professionals who work with children have mandatory requirements to report obvious signs of abuse.

But however broad or narrow the law is interpreted, it seems a pretty safe bet that Kentucky will continue to occupy the top spot in the activists’ annual rankings of worst animal protection states.

And that’s without even mentioning fried chicken.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.