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Animal Cruelty: Gateway to Violent Crime?

animal cruelty

The recent arrest of Interpol fugitive Luka Magnotta served as a rude reminder that animal cruelty is not a crime to be taken lightly. Magnotta was arrested in Germany for murdering, mutilating and cannibalizing a young man in Montreal, Canada. Magnotta recorded video of the murder, then posted it on the Internet.

For two years prior, animal activists had been searching for a young man who had posted videos of himself online, torturing and killing cats. Montreal law enforcement has since identified the animal abuser as Magnotta.

The Link between Animal Cruelty and Violent Crime

Analyses by sociologists, psychologists and criminologists during the past 25 years show that perpetrators of animal cruelty frequently do not stop with animal victims. Many will move on to commit acts of violence against humans. A 1997 study by Northeastern University and the Massachusetts SPCA reported that nearly 40% of animal abusers had committed violent crimes against people.

A FBI survey of convicted serial killers found that most serial killers tortured or killed animals as children or teens, before moving on to human victims. Among them were Jeffrey Dahmer, who had impaled dogs' heads, frogs and cats on sticks as a teen, as well as Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who bragged about mutilating animals to their friends, before shooting and killing 12 classmates and taking their own lives.

Studies also show a strong correlation between animal abuse and domestic violence. National surveys have found that among battered women who owned companion pets, as many as 71% reported that their male partners had threatened to harm their pets, or had in fact injured or killed their pets. Survey results also show a detrimental effect on children who witness animal abuse in their families: among the same group of battered women, 32% reported that one of their own children had also engaged in animal cruelty.

domestic violence

The Humane Society of the United States estimates that nearly 1 million animals a year are abused or killed in connection with domestic violence. Acknowledging the significance and severity of this problem, 22 states have passed laws empowering courts to specifically include pets in domestic violence protection orders.

Felony Animal Cruelty

Today all 50 states have enacted laws prohibiting animal cruelty. The statutes criminalize two types of actions: (1) intentional acts, such as killing, torturing, or deliberately injuring an animal; and (2) the failure to act, as in the failure to provide adequate food, water, shelter, or in some states, reasonable veterinary care, for an animal.

Recognizing that animal abusers are likely to commit acts of violence against humans as well, state legislatures are strengthening animal protection laws. Before 1986, only 4 states had felony animal anti-cruelty laws. Today, all but 3 states have enacted felony animal cruelty provisions. (The three states currently with no felony provisions are Idaho, North Dakota and South Dakota.) Of the 47 states with felony provisions, 43 allow first-time offenders to be charged with a felony in cases of intentional and aggravated cruelty. Many states have enacted felony provisions for repeat offenses, even if the first offense was only a misdemeanor.

Saving Animals, Saving Ourselves

Repeat offenses by animal abusers are not uncommon. Recidivism among animal hoarders is estimated to be 100%. Once the initial case is resolved, the hoarder will set up shop again in a different -- or even the same -- jurisdiction in which their first case was prosecuted.

To prevent recurrences of animal abuse, animal welfare advocates nationwide are rallying state and local legislators to establish animal abuser registries. The proposed registries are patterned after the child molester registries established by Megan's Law. With the the names and locations of convicted animal abusers made public, animal shelters, rescues, breeders, pet shops, groomers and veterinarians could help ensure that no additional animals are placed into the hands of convicted abusers.

Suffolk County in New York was the first jurisdiction to establish an animal abuser registry requirement in 2010. Today, 25 states, including New York and California, are considering legislation to establish animal abuser registries.

The registries may help save more than just animals' lives."We know there is a very strong correlation between animal abuse and domestic violence," says Jon Cooper, the sponsor of the Suffolk County animal abuser registry bill. "Almost every serial killer starts out by torturing animals, so in a strange sense we could end up protecting the lives of people."

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