By IAN URBINA
Published: March 17, 2010
There is growing evidence that people who abuse animals often go on to attack humans, states are increasing the penalties for animal cruelty and developing better methods for tracking convicted offenders.
At a mobile home site in Perry County, Ohio, two years ago, animal control authorities impounded 50 dogs and discovered the dead bodies of 18 others.
Kenneth Lang Jr. pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges.
State lawmakers are paying especially close attention to animal hoarders — people who keep large numbers of pets without providing for their most basic needs — because these offenders are prone to recidivism and can cost counties huge sums for cleanup costs and the care of rescued animals.
At least 27 states now allow courts to bar convicted animal abusers from owning or coming into contact with pets, nearly double the number from a decade ago, and 3 other states are considering similar measures this year. Tennessee and California are considering bills to create online registries of animal abusers.
“It’s not that animal abuse is more prevalent,” said Stephan Otto, director of legislative affairs with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “What has changed over the past few years is the recognition that animal abuse is often a warning sign for other types of violence and neglect.”
“States also just have much less money to handle the clean up, veterinary care and other costs associated with these cases,” Mr. Otto added.
In Franklin County, Ohio, for example, animal rescue officials estimate that one case alone cost them more than $1.2 million just to rescue and care for more than 170 dogs from a hoarder’s home.
In Dearborn, Mich., the county paid more than $37,000 to clean up the home of a convicted hoarder, Kenneth Lang Jr., where the authorities found more than 150 dead Chihuahuas and Chihuahua mixes and over 100 other dogs, covered in feces and filth, living there. Many of the dead dogs were found in refrigerators and freezers at the residence.
More than 30 states now have laws that shift the financial burden of caring for abused or neglected animals from taxpayers to the defendants. The same number of states now authorize veterinarians to report suspected animal abuse.
And in the last three years, Arkansas, Illinois, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have enacted laws that require or authorize child or spousal abuse investigators and animal control officers to inform each other when they find something potentially amiss in a home. Eight states now have such laws.
Law enforcement officials often do not pursue charges against animal abusers because of limited resources, opting instead for noncriminal remediation that results in animals remaining in the custody of their abusers.
“In addition to protecting animals from suffering during a lengthy legal process, we used to have to worry about not bankrupting our county while caring for hundreds of animals for an extended period,” said William Lamberth, a prosecutor in Sumner County, Tenn., where the state legislature passed a law in 2007 giving courts the ability to require that those charged with animal abuse pay for care for their impounded animals or lose ownership.
He added that the new law had already saved his county tens of thousands of dollars.
States are also pushing for improved tracking of offenders.
Advocates for the registries say they will be useful because they will allow animal shelters to screen potential adopters, alert law enforcement to the presence of residents with a history of hoarding and warn communities about violent offenders. But opponents argue that once people have served their time and paid their fines, they should not be punished indefinitely for their crimes.
The proposed registries in Tennessee and California would include only adult and convicted offenders of felony level animal abuse.
The cost of building registries or mandating new reporting requirements has also been a concern.
According to a report issued by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2009, a registry there would cost the state $26,200 per year. Colorado conducted a similar analysis in 2002, which found the costs for developing and maintaining an abuser registry at $18,514 the first year and $10,994 for subsequent years.
But advocates say cost should not deter states from taking up this issue.
“Animal abuse is one of the four indicators that the F.B.I. profilers use to asses future violent behavior, so I don’t see why we should not use it too,” said Diana S. Urban, a Democratic state representative in Connecticut who sponsored a bill mandating that animal control workers and child welfare workers cross-report suspected animal, child or domestic abuse.
Frank R. Ascione, a professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work who has extensively studied the topic, said, “The research is pretty clear that there are connections between animal abuse and domestic violence and child abuse.”
One study found that in 88 percent of homes where children were physically abused, pets were mistreated too. A 2007 study found that women abused by their intimate partner were 10 times more likely to report that their partner had hurt or killed one or more of their pets than women who were not abused.
Professor Ascione, who also advises law enforcement officials in abuse cases, said that cross-reporting requirements helped foster early intervention.
In several recent cases, he said, children hinted at animal abuse to teachers who alerted animal protection agencies. Those workers spotted warning signs of other types of abuse, and child welfare workers intervened only to find that the children themselves were being abused.
“Often children are not willing to talk about what is happening to them, but they will talk about their concerns about what they are seeing done to their pets,” Professor Ascione said.
States have grown increasingly intolerant of animal abuse over the years. Two decades ago, just six states had felony level animal cruelty laws. Now all but four do.
Some states are bucking the trend. In Idaho, which is one of the states without a felony cruelty penalty, farmers and ranchers are pushing a bill that would more clearly distinguish livestock from pets and would exempt livestock from the protections afforded pets.