In our last newsletter, we shared three real-life stories of people fighting off a wild bear attack. These scenarios beg the question: How can a person legally defend themselves against an attacking animal?
We asked your Independent Program Attorney to answer this question for you, so you will know what to do if you are attacked by an animal.
Georgia has no dedicated self-defense statute that deals with all animals. There exist statutes that justify the use of deadly force against animals for personal protection in general, and more specific statutes that grant freedom from liability for acts committed against animals involved in specific conduct.
Recall that Georgia’s general self-defense statutes allow for the justified use of force or deadly force against another person when and to the degree an individual reasonably believes that it is necessary to protect himself or herself – or any other person – from unlawful force, death, or great bodily injury. As Georgia law applies to animal attacks, a person may be legally justified in using force or deadly force (such as firing a gun) against an attacking animal if that person “reasonably believes that such act is necessary to defend against an imminent threat of injury or damage to any person, other animal, or property.” O.C.G.A. § 16-12-4(h)(1). However, the threat must be “imminent”: Georgia’s Court of Appeals has found that, in order to justify the act of killing a dog, even in the defense of yourself, your family, or property (or the person or property of another), “such danger must be imminent, and a real or obviously apparent necessity must exist, and the threatened injury could not otherwise be avoided.” Readd v. State, 164 Ga. App. 97 (1982).
When deadly force is lawfully used against an attacking animal as Georgia law allows, the actor will be discharged of any criminal responsibility for the death of the animal he or she has injured or killed, so long as the actor felt it necessary to protect himself, herself, or another from “an imminent threat of injury.” “[A] person who humanely injures or kills an animal under the circumstances indicated in this subsection shall incur no civil liability or criminal responsibility for such injury or death.” O.C.G.A. § 16-12-4(h)(3). By virtue of this subsection, any deadly force used upon an attacking animal — dog or otherwise— would carry no criminal responsibility for the attacked, and he or she would not be liable for monetary damages to the animal’s owner for the death.
While this is the law is applied to all animals, a separate law on permitted action appears to become more permissive when it is applied specifically to dogs. While the justification provisions of the cruelty to animals statute, O.C.G.A. § 16-12-4, absolve an individual from criminal responsibility for the death of an animal when “necessary to defend against an imminent threat of injury or damage,” the cruelty to dogs statute, O.C.G.A. § 4-8-5, arguably lowers the threshold for freedom from liability for killing a dog, only requiring a showing that an individual has defended his or her person or property, or the person or property of another, or “any livestock or poultry” (irrespective of ownership), “from injury or damage” caused by a dog. As in the cruelty to animals statute, any action taken to defend self or property must be “as humane as is possible under the circumstances.” See O.C.G.A. §4-8-5.
What about federally protected species, like bears? The federal law, in comprehensive fashion, has had the foresight to specifically provide that a person may kill an animal protected by federal law in self-defense, such as the regulations concerning the grizzly bear in 50 CFR § 17.40(b)(1)(i)(B). Unlike Georgia’s statutes, this makes the Federal law clear and comprehendible. Therefore, if you are carrying a firearm in a National Park (you must have a Georgia Weapons Carry License for this), and you find yourself face to face with a grizzly bear, you will have a legal defense for protecting yourself.
To View the law for defense against animals in other states click on the state names below: