Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Animal-Cruelty Syndrome by Charles Siebert



By CHARLES SIEBERT
Published: June 7, 2010

On a late May afternoon last year in southwest Baltimore, a 2-year-old female pit bull terrier was doused in gasoline and set alight. A young city policewoman on her regular patrol of the neighborhood of boarded-up row houses and redbrick housing developments turned her squad car onto the 1600 block of Presbury Street and saw a cloud of black smoke rising from the burning dog. She hopped out, ran past idle onlookers and managed to put out the flames with her sweater. The dog, subsequently named Phoenix, survived for four days with burns over 95 percent of her body, but soon began to succumb to kidney failure and had to be euthanized.

It was only a matter of hours before the story, made vivid by harrowing video footage of the wounded dog, was disseminated nationwide in newspapers, TV and radio newscasts and countless Web sites. An initial $1,000 reward for the capture of the culprits would soon climb to $26,000 as people around the country followed Phoenix’s struggle for life. A gathering of people in Venice Beach, Calif., held a candlelight vigil for her. A month later, the mayor of Baltimore, Sheila Dixon, announced the creation of the Anti-Animal-Abuse Task Force to work in concert with city officials, local law enforcement and animal rights and animal-control groups to find ways to better prevent, investigate and prosecute such crimes.

The scale, speed and intensity of the response were striking. The subject of animal abuse, especially the abuse of pit bulls in dog-fighting activities, has achieved a higher profile after the 2007 arrest of the N.F.L. star Michael Vick for operating an illegal interstate dog-fighting operation in Surry County, Va. But the beleaguered pit bull is merely the most publicized victim of a phenomenon that a growing number of professionals — including police officers, prosecutors, psychologists, social workers, animal-control officers, veterinarians and dogcatchers — are now addressing with a newfound vigor: wanton cruelty toward animals. Before 1990, only six states had felony provisions in their animal-­cruelty laws; now 46 do. Two years ago, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals formed the nation’s first Mobile Animal Crime Scene Investigation Unit, a rolling veterinary hospital and forensic lab that travels around the country helping traditional law-enforcement agencies follow the evidentiary trails of wounded or dead animals back to their abusers.

In addition to a growing sensitivity to the rights of animals, another significant reason for the increased attention to animal cruelty is a mounting body of evidence about the link between such acts and serious crimes of more narrowly human concern, including illegal firearms possession, drug trafficking, gambling, spousal and child abuse, rape and homicide. In the world of law enforcement — and in the larger world that our laws were designed to shape — animal-cruelty issues were long considered a peripheral concern and the province of local A.S.P.C.A. and Humane Society organizations; offenses as removed and distinct from the work of enforcing the human penal code as we humans have deemed ourselves to be from animals. But that illusory distinction is rapidly fading.

“With traditional law enforcement,” Sgt. David Hunt, a dog-fighting expert with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office in Columbus, Ohio, told me, “the attitude has been that we have enough stuff on our plate, let the others worry about Fluffy and Muffy. But I’m starting to see a shift in that mentality now.” Hunt has traveled to 24 states around the country in order to teach law-enforcement personnel about the dog-fighting underworld, often stressing the link between activities like dog fighting and domestic violence. “You have to sell it to them in such a way that it’s not a Fluffy-Muffy issue,” he said of teaching police officers about animal-abuse issues. “It’s part of a larger nexus of crimes and the psyche behind them.”

The connection between animal abuse and other criminal behaviors was recognized, of course, long before the evolution of the social sciences and institutions with which we now address such behaviors. In his famous series of 1751 engravings, “The Four Stages of Cruelty,” William Hogarth traced the life path of the fictional Tom Nero: Stage 1 depicts Tom as a boy, torturing a dog; Stage 4 shows Tom’s body, fresh from the gallows where he was hanged for murder, being dissected in an anatomical theater. And animal cruelty has long been recognized as a signature pathology of the most serious violent offenders. As a boy, Jeffrey Dahmer impaled the heads of cats and dogs on sticks; Theodore Bundy, implicated in the murders of some three dozen people, told of watching his grandfather torture animals; David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam,” poisoned his mother’s parakeet.

But the intuitions that informed the narrative arc of Tom Nero are now being borne out by empirical research. A paper published in a psychiatry journal in 2004, “A Study of Firesetting and Animal Cruelty in Children: Family Influences and Adolescent Outcomes,” found that over a 10-year period, 6-to-12-year-old children who were described as being cruel to animals were more than twice as likely as other children in the study to be reported to juvenile authorities for a violent offense. In an October 2005 paper published in Journal of Community Health, a team of researchers conducting a study over seven years in 11 metropolitan areas determined that pet abuse was one of five factors that predicted who would begin other abusive behaviors. In a 1995 study, nearly a third of pet-owning victims of domestic abuse, meanwhile, reported that one or more of their children had killed or harmed a pet.

The link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is becoming so well established that many U.S. communities now cross-train social-service and animal-control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors. In Illinois and several other states, new laws mandate that veterinarians notify the police if their suspicions are aroused by the condition of the animals they treat. The state of California recently added Humane Society and animal-control officers to the list of professionals bound by law to report suspected child abuse and is now considering a bill in the State Legislature that would list animal abusers on the same type of online registry as sex offenders and arsonists.

When I spoke recently with Stacy Wolf, vice president and chief legal counsel of the A.S.P.C.A.’s Humane Law Enforcement department, which focuses on the criminal investigation of animal-cruelty cases in New York City, she drew a comparison between the emerging mindfulness about animal cruelty and the changing attitudes toward domestic abuse in the 1980s. “It really has only been in recent years that there’s been more free and accurate reporting with respect to animal cruelty, just like 30 years ago domestic violence was not something that was commonly reported,” she said. “Clearly every act of violence committed against an animal is not a sign that somebody is going to hurt a person. But when there’s a pattern of abusive behavior in a family scenario, then everyone from animal-control to family advocates to the court system needs to consider all vulnerable victims, including animals, and understand that violence is violence.”

For the entire article, please visit The New York Times website.