Animal cruelty statutes have been in the books for centuries now. And while society has become progressively more supportive of animal rights, some attorneys say the issue is more far-reaching than many people realize.

And so the Animal Law Section of the Connecticut Bar Association has teamed up with the University of Connecticut School of Law to educate a wide range of officials on cruelty issues and the link between animal cruelty and human violence. These topics will be discussed at a seminar scheduled for Friday, May 3 on the law school’s Hartford campus.

The diverse audience will no doubt stir up a cross-disciplinary conversation. Among those invited are judges, prosecutors, lawyers, law students, animal control officers and employees of the Department of Children and Families.

There’s been heightened awareness of animal rights issues in recent years, and, in turn, there has been stricter enforcement of animal abuse statutes. But it wasn’t so long ago that animal abuse was overlooked because the courts were "already so overburdened" with other types of cases, said Colette S. Griffin, co-chair of the Animal Law Section and an attorney Howd & Ludorf.

"Essentially, cruelty to animals is now a felony in the state," Griffin said. "We’ve increased the fines associated with cruelty, we’ve increased potential jail time. We want to be certain that all facets, beginning with the investigation stage [and continuing] all through the judiciary, have information available to them in order to be able to use those statutes effectively."

Griffin said while the concern of the CBA section is primarily the welfare of animals, there is a significant link between violence against animals and violence against humans.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, studies have found that between 71 and 83 percent of women entering domestic violence shelters reported that their partners also abused or killed the family pet. "This [trend] is evidenced by the cross-reporting bills that have passed," said Griffin, referring to a 2011 state law that requires the state Department of Agriculture to share reports of animal abuse with DCF.

Animal Law Section co-chair Suzan M. Porto, a solo practitioner, said the link goes beyond perpetrators of domestic violence. She said research shows that serial killers and other murderers "very often start out by killing and torturing animals as kids."

"I specifically went to law school to become an animal protection and animal rights attorney because injustice for any living being — human and non-human — is something I just cannot fathom," said Porto. "I am very pleased that this [seminar] is happening because I believe it is going to start many, many other conferences in the future…It’s a great educational tool for promoting change for animals for the better."

Jessica Rubin, a UConn professor who teaches Animal Law and acts as faculty advisor for the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, thinks it’s a good idea to bring together experts from a variety of fields. She hopes participants will leave the conference "with a heightened sense of what cruelty is, why it matters — both to animals and humans — and how to better handle issues of cruelty in the legal system so that we can stop animal cruelty for the benefit of animals and the benefit of involved humans."

The seminar will feature two panels. The first will include state Representative Diana Urban, animal behavior expert Jonathon Balcombe and social worker Kate Nichols. Their topics will include current legislation, a broader view of animal cruelty and its link to violence, and an analysis of the link from a mental health perspective.

"In Connecticut, before 2010, it was very difficult to find statistics related to the outcome of cruelty cases because most of them were disposed of in a way that didn’t result in an open record," said Rubin. She credited Urban for pushing for better record-keeping in animal cruelty cases and for introducing the 2011 cross-reporting legislation.

The second panel will focus on "investigating and prosecuting cruelty cases," said Griffin. "Okay, now we have identified the cruelty. What do we do about it?" The panelists will be Raymond Connors, the Agriculture Department’s Animal Control Division supervisor, Joseph LaMotta, a state prosecutor familiar with cruelty cases, and Superior Court Judge Raymond Norko. Rubin hopes each professional will learn something beneficial concerning his or her own field and better understand the role other professionals play. "For example," she said, "the veterinarians in the audience will hopefully come away with an understanding of the legal procedures involved in cruelty cases, know who to report to and engage [in] some cross-disciplinary conversation and understanding."

The seminar comes at a time when the legislature is considering a bill that would give abused animals a voice in courtrooms. The proposal would require the Commissioner of Agriculture to provide a list of potential advocates, including veterinarians, lawyers and law students.

"So our law students will be eligible, under supervision, to serve as animal advocates under this legislation if it’s passed," said Rubin. "It’s really an effort to help the judiciary by providing them with the resources that they don’t have right now."•

The seminar, "Animal Cruelty: Legal Challenges and Potential Solutions," will be held from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Friday, May 3 in the UConn law school’s William F. Starr Reading Room. An RSVP form is available online at www.law.uconn.edu, by visiting the Events Calendar.