Last year in Finland, 3,178 suspicions of animal abuse were reported to animal welfare authorities, but only 188 cases went to trial.
Yle investigated the court rulings on those cases and found that 10 were dismissed, while 61 dealt with livestock and 88 concerned pets.
Judges in 36 of the 61 cases involving farm animal abuse issued a fine as punishment.
Tarja Koskela, the only PhD-level researcher of crimes against animals and animal welfare supervision in Finland, says few judges have experience with animal abuse matters, and may have a hard time appraising such cases.
"Animal rights are not a part of lawyer training, so how many of them can understand animal suffering without some kind of specialisation?" she said.
Aggravated charges for cruel treatment
Animal abuse offences in Finland are only judged to be aggravated if they are particularly harsh or cruel, involve a very large number of livestock, or have been perpetrated for economic gain.
Koskela has analysed 70 animal protection court rulings from 2011-2018. She said that in close to half of the cases she examined, the charges against the defendant were for aggravated offences, but the sentence ended up being for the lesser charge of animal abuse.
"Livestock can be standing in a half-metre of manure, their food can be mouldy, there's little water to be had and the animals are sick. Some may be left to lie there dead because the owner hasn't bothered to move them. Even in cases like these, the most common sentence is a fine," she said.
Her research has determined that the average fine in Finland for animal abuse is a 43-day fine.
Major regional differences
Koskela called for court that specialises in animal protection cases in Finland, a move she said would introduce consistency in rulings.
Yle discovered large regional variations in the severity and type of penalties handed down by courts, a trend confirmed by Koskela's own research.
"It is clear from the sentences that there's a lot of room for interpretation and the variations among different areas is considerable. This lack of uniformity can be seen not just in terms of sentences, but also in monitoring, police and prosecution work," said Koskela, a University of Eastern Finland lecturer in criminal and process law.
Pirkanmaa's district court ruled on the highest number of animal abuse cases in the 2000s, despite the fact that it has no more farms proportionately than any other region. Courts in the regions of Satakunta, Kainuu and North Karelia each heard just one animal abuse case each last year. Due to resourcing problems, 30 percent of monitoring visits in eastern Finland were not completed.
"I doubt that farms in Pirkanmaa treat their animals twice as bad as those in other areas. The assumption is that there is just a better functioning chain between the animal welfare authorities and the police, the prosecutors and the courts," Koskela noted.
Small farms struggle to survive
Yle's research found that many of the cases tried followed the same formula; small family farms suspected of livestock abuse. Often, the sole heir to farms is trying to keep operations afloat, battling burnout and fatigue. The situation has often continued for several years.
"Bigger farms have more resources. Smaller farms are not as profitable, so there are not necessarily resources to care for the animals as they should be cared for," Koskela said.
When authorities try to tell such farmers about the shortcomings they see, the conversation inevitably turns to the farmer's personal problems.
"There are repeated attempts to cover things up when it comes to crimes against animals. In one case, a farmer set his barn on fire to hide the number of deceased livestock and the sorry state of the animals that were left," Koskela continued.
Only as strong as the weakest link
The investigation raised the question of why only 60-80 cases out of 3,000 suspicions reach the courts in Finland, and why sentences are so lenient?
The Finnish Food Authority's unit head Jaana Mikkola says it's due to a dearth of expertise, ability and daring to interfere with lapses in the chain.
"Even if the animal welfare authority does its job perfectly, if the police don't investigate or the prosecution doesn't come up with charges or the courts don't hand down decent sentences, the chain doesn't function - and vice versa. There is a lot of work to do in this area," she said.
Finland has been developing a new animal protection bill since 2010. Last spring, work on the draft legislation was delayed by a government shutdown, which also put many other sweeping regional administration changes on ice.
The new act seeks to distribute responsibility for animal welfare to larger regional bodies, and make several changes to existing animal welfare monitoring practices.