Sunday, February 15, 2009

Animal cruelty by youngsters seen as symptom of bigger problem

Statistics show many violent adult offenders started early

* By Deirdre Conner
* Story updated at 6:28 PM on Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009

A case that shocked the region is sparking discussion about the link between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence.
When Georgia authorities announced in late December they were investigating the case of three kittens so severely tortured and burned that two eventually died — and another had to have part of its ears amputated — people throughout the community donated thousands to help pay the vet bills and up the police reward for tips in the case. They asked: Who could do such unspeakable things to an innocent animal?

When Brooks County police arrested a teenager this month in connection with the horrific crime, they wondered: Could a person capable of being so cruel to animals be a danger to people, too?

The answer, prosecutors and the public increasingly believe, is yes. But laws differ on counseling requirements, and statistics on animal cruelty are not tracked as carefully as other violent crimes.

Studies suggest that a high proportion — somewhere between one in four to two in three — of violent criminals harmed animals as children and teens, according to a briefing by the U.S. Department of Justice. There also is evidence to suggest that people who have been prosecuted for animal cruelty are significantly more likely to have committed other crimes, it said. And domestic violence experts say abusers often hurt family pets as a form of control over their victims, pointing to statistics showing that half or more battered women report their pets were killed or threatened by their abuser.

Yet it’s not as simple as saying that someone who tortures animals will go on to do the same to people. Researchers do not agree on how likely it is that animal abusers will go on to become violent toward people. Much is still unknown about animal cruelty, which is often committed in private and because of that, some believe, under-reported. Incidence of the crime is not collected uniformly by national authorities that track murders and thefts.

When children or teens intentionally inflict pain on an animal, it’s not only a crime — it’s a symptom, said Sharon Youngerman, who has worked with kids in abusive situations and now the executive director of Quigley House, a shelter for battered women in Clay County.

“When you’ve got animal cruelty, chances are you’ve got some sort of domestic violence or child abuse in the home,” she said. Boys especially tend to abuse animals as a way of acting out their own abuse, or domestic violence they witness in the family.

Enforcement and investigation of such crimes is important, Youngerman said, to stop current abuse (of both the animal and potentially of the perpetrator) and prevent future violence. Doing so sends a message that such behavior is not acceptable and forces the perpetrator, at least in Florida, to get psychological help, she said.

Quigley House added a kennel last year to its shelter in hopes of saving animals — and the women who wouldn’t leave them behind.

State Attorney Angela Corey said she has not given much study to the issue, but “my personal philosophy is that anyone that would harm an innocent animal would be capable of harming an innocent human being.”

She said the office is prosecuting cases including a suspect accused of severely beating a canine officer.

That stance is no longer limited to animal advocates, said Laura Bevan, Southeast regional director for the Humane Society of the United States. Most people in the public are more aware that violence toward animals can be a predictor of violence toward humans, she said, a change from decades ago when most states didn’t even have felony penalties for animal cruelty (and a handful still don’t).

These days, felony animal abuse can mean prison time, up to five years in Florida and Georgia, although a review of recent local cases shows the maximum sentence is rare. Both states have fairly stringent animal abuse laws, Bevan said.

In Florida, however, those convicted of felony animal cruelty must have psychological counseling or anger-management classes. Georgia’s law, passed in 2000, has no such requirement, although it provides that the judge may require psychological evaluation.

Counseling, especially for children and teens accused of hurting animals, can make a difference, Youngerman said.

It’s something that should be required in the Georgia law, too, said Mechelle Sullivan, the foster adoption coordinator for the Humane Society of Valdosta, which put up some of the reward money in the case. Anger in the area has been running high about the case.

“This is what scares me personally, is, you take a 17-year-old kid who’s messed up, and you throw him in jail, and you don’t do any counseling … they come out meaner, harder, madder at the world, and what are they going to do?” she said.

When considering the crime could be a predictor of future violence, it’s important to consider the nature of the crime, Bevan said.

“When you talk about people torturing and burning and cutting and shooting — all of those things where there’s intent to inflict pain and suffering — someone who gets pleasure in that is a dangerous person,” she said.

Neglect cases — where animals are starved, hoarded or left to suffocate in hot cars — are also horrifying. But they don’t necessarily indicate that the person is violent and a danger to people, Bevan said, and very small children simply may not know better.

Education may not stop a truly disturbed person, but for children, learning about how to treat animals with compassion can make a difference and even prevent cases of animal cruelty, said Danya Parks-Freel, operations director at the Jacksonville Humane Society, which has a variety of educational programs for children, teens and adults.

“They have the potential to break cycles,” she said. If children see animal abuse at home, they may believe that’s the norm, she said.

Youngerman thinks the difference between cruelty and neglect or ignorance is usually clear. Awareness of the extent of the problem and its complexity, she said, is not.

“I think pet cruelty in general is something people don’t think enough about,” she said.



deirdre.conner@jacksonville.com,

(904) 359-4504