Friday, August 28, 2009

Cruelty to animals: the human connection



Cynthia Boyd

Cruelty to animals: the human connection
A "pissed-off" homeless man in St. Paul allegedly throws his puppy eight feet into the air earlier this week, according to St. Paul police reports, injuring the animal so badly a vet has to euthanize the animal. Just one more sad story?

No, so much more, says Randall Lockwood, a psychologist who's spent more than 25 years studying the connections between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans. The incident is a "red flag," Lockwood said, because people who abuse animals are "about four or five times more likely to be involved in crimes against people.''

Read that as: child abuse, domestic violence, elder abuse, illegal drug use.

It's that connection that caused Minnesota and 45 other states to raise cruelty to animals to the felony level and why Steven David Strachota, 27, has been charged with felony animal cruelty and Tuesday had bail set at $1,500. That could mean two years jail time and/or a $5,000 fine, though there are other possibly mitigating issues in Strachota's case. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, there have been five cases filed in Minnesota to civilly commit the man for mental illness in as many years and he apparently was discharged this spring.

Given incidence of mental illness and the recession, is the incidence of animal cruelty on the rise?

"Unfortunately we don't know,'' said Lockwood, senior vice president of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Animal cruelty, even felony animal cruelty, is not something the Department of Justice tracks, though ASPCA staff members come across one to three stories a day in media around the nation. Each state defines animal cruelty differently, which also makes tracking difficult.

Horrific examples
The cases can be horrific, as evidenced by these examples. A couple of years ago two young men, still in prison in Atlanta, wrapped a puppy in duct tape, put it alive in a community center oven and forced children to come see the puppy. Two boys in Baltimore recently set fire to a pit bull.

Reporting of animal cruelty is increasing among the public, law enforcement and veterinarians.

"It might have been ignored a few years ago,'' Lockwood said.

Police are taught when responding to domestic violence calls to also be alert to pet violence. They're asking children in such cases to "tell me about your pets.'' That gives youngsters the chance to talk about a dog's broken leg, a cat's injuries caused by a family member.

Now there are a dozen states where vets are mandated to report cases of suspected animal and human abuse and taught to be alert when "the dog-fell-off-the-bed" story doesn't match up to an animal's extensive physical injuries.

In fact, the connection between domestic violence and animal abuse is so great that growing numbers of veterinary clinics post information in women's bathrooms listing phone numbers for women's shelters. About 70 percent of women who flee to shelters to escape an abuser report their pets have been threatened, injured or killed by their abuser. In child abuse cases, about 90 percent of the abusers have also injured family pets. More states are including family pets in protection orders.

Lockwood calls the Minnesota incident a "serious case" that five or 10 years ago would not have been responded to, but is being appropriately responded to now.

But it involves one animal, a pit bull that Strachota, according to police reports, had traded his bicycle for.

"Sometimes the allegedly sweet little old lady with hundreds of cats is causing more injury and death,'' the "animal hoarder" having dozens of injured, sick and dying animals, Lockwood said. So-called puppy mills keep animals living in unhealthy conditions, endangering many.

Then there's the massive dog fighting ring brought down in Missouri last summer, involving eight states, more than 500 dogs and 20 arrests. In such dog fighting operations up to half of animals typically die of injuries, said Lockwood.

Lockwood lives with his family and their 17-year-old cat in Falls Church, Va.