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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 20, 2006

Pets often the victims of rage

By Travis Carter
NYU Livewire

In February, a 39-year-old North Carolina man threatened to shoot his wife and kill her Jack Russell terrier. The man ultimately spared his spouse. But he took out his rage on the dog, slashing its throat and letting it bleed to death.

District Attorney Gerald Wilson of Watauga County soon received a letter asking him to "fully purse all animal cruelty charges, with a punishment consisting of significant prison time, mandatory psychological counseling and a prohibition on caring for or owning animals."

The plea came from Peter Wood, the deputy manager of animal cruelty issues at the Humane Society of the United States. Wood writes letters like this all the time, asking district attorneys to prosecute perpetrators who commit acts of violence against animals when they intend to harm humans. According to Wood and other animal rights advocates, many who commit animal cruelty also have a propensity to hurt humans, and animal cruelty is only the first step in what will later become a lifetime of violence against humans. "There is a real connection," said Wood. "There is absolutely no debate."

Wood is not alone in trying to raise awareness of a connection between animal abuse and domestic violence, and working to deter future incidents. One California-based activist, Alison Gianotto, has taken the cause onto the internet. Launched in 2001 after her friend's cat Bert was burned to death by an unknown assailant, pet-abuse.com tracks animal cruelty criminal cases. So far, Gianotto has compiled 7,653, making it the largest such online database in the world. Animal shelters across the country use it to do background checks of those who want to adopt animals. "If all this work means preventing an animal from getting in the hands of someone who has abused, it's worth it," said Gianotto.

The database includes 586 animal-abuse cases which are known to involve "a person of history of interpersonal violence or [where] the abuse occurred within the context of a domestic dispute or argument."

The link between domestic violence and animal abuse has been well documented. In 1997, a research team at Utah State University looked to assess animal maltreatment in the households of battered women seeking safety in shelters, comparing them to the homes of women who lived in the same community but were not battered. The study found that 54 percent reported harm to their pets, and another 16.3 percent reported threats that were made but not carried out. Roughly the same fraction of the nonshelter women reported threats to pets--but just 3.5 percent reported actual harm.

That same year, the Humane Society created a program called First Strike to raise public and professional awareness about the connection between animal cruelty and human violence. Since then, it has attempted to prevent violence by working with local animal protection agencies to promote inter-agency collaborations. The Humane Society offers investigative information, rewards, and expert testimony to law enforcement.

Gianotto agrees with the strategy: local law enforcement officers working on domestic abuse, she says, must also work with those officers covering animal cruelty. Animal control officers are often law enforcement officers themselves, or are part of a Humane Society, and may be granted the authority to make arrests.

A few cities and states are leading the way. Recently the Maricopa County, Ariz., Attorney's Office started a Law Enforcement for Animal Protection task force to monitor abusers and prosecute them before they begin to commit acts of violence against humans. Maine, meanwhile, has enacted the first law in the nation that allows judges to include pets in protection orders for spouses leaving abusive relationships.

Animal safehouses are another way to ensure the safety of people and pets simultaneously. A network of about 74 animal safehouses operates across the country--havens where victims of domestic abuse can place their pets while they attempt to leave a violent situation. Most are funded with a combination of grants and donations.

Christine Hartline, the animal safehouse director at the Rancho Coastal Humane Society in San Diego, reports that about two out of every five women who seek support from her safehouse say they initially did not leave an abusive relationship out of fear that the abuser would harm the animal. Unfortunately, for many of the animals it is too late. Unlike regular shelters, the pets in safehouses being temporarily cared for are sometimes terrified of people and certain objects, such as hoses and brooms, as a result of beatings in the past.

As animal control officers and law enforcement begin to work together, Gianotto believes a new, collaborative approach will emerge, based on the mindset that pet abuse is a sign of much larger tendencies to cause harm. She hopes the new approach will lead to a safer society for animals and for humans.

"I am not an animal rights activist," said Gianotto. "I see this as a social issue and a human issue."