Over the past several years, a significant body of research has established a clear connection between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence, including domestic partner, elder and child abuse. Research suggests that early intervention in animal cruelty cases could ultimately protect not only pets from abuse or death, but people as well.1 Unfortunately, our legal and social service systems—understandably preoccupied with human issues—may not give the gateway crime of animal cruelty the attention it deserves.
Historically, animal cruelty has been something of a back burner issue in the annals of criminal law. Although the Puritans enacted the first state animal cruelty statute in 1641 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, it wasn’t until 1828 that the nation’s second statute, in New York, was passed.2 Over the next century, every other jurisdiction followed suit and there now appears to be widespread, if not universal, acknowledgment that animal abuse is a serious matter. Still, I believe that our laws and our society have so far failed to keep pace and failed to adequately address what we now know beyond cavil is an indicator crime, as any number of studies show.
We know that animal abusers are five times more likely than others to harm humans.3 We know that in pet owning households with a history of child abuse there is an 88 percent incidence of animal cruelty.4 We know that 71 percent of pet-owning women who sought shelter in a safe house reported that their partner had killed, injured or threatened to harm their pet.5 We know that 69 percent of abused women delayed leaving the home due to fear of leaving the pet behind.6 We know that half of domestic violence victims who remain in violent households do so out of fear for their pets.
We know that perpetrators of domestic violence frequently harm or threaten to harm a pet to demonstrate their power and control, to isolate the victim, to perpetuate an environment of fear and intimidation, to prevent the victim from leaving or coerce her to return, and to punish the victim for leaving or showing any sign of independence.7 Caseworkers in domestic violence shelters report incidents of emotional blackmail such as: “He killed the ferret just to scare us,” “He beheaded the parakeet because she was singing,” “Because I was getting home late, he put my cat in the microwave,” “I went back because he mailed me the ears of my dog that he had cut off.”
Child protective workers tell us how child abusers coerce silence from their victims by threatening to harm their pets.8 Animal abuse is also linked to crimes outside the home: an Australian study found that 100 percent of the sexual homicide perpetrators they interviewed—every single one of them—had abused animals.9 One study found that 70 percent of animal abusers had criminal records including violent crimes, drugs or disorderly behavior.10 At this stage, we know a lot about the link between animal cruelty and violence, but have we as a society sufficiently invoked that evidence to update laws, procedures and protocols for dealing with what, at first blush, may amount to nothing more than a misdemeanor offense? I fear not.
As an Albany City Court judge handling criminal matters, I encounter such cases from time to time (although my colleague, Judge William A. Carter, is the Domestic Violence Court judge), and have grown increasingly concerned over the connection between animal cruelty and domestic abuse. To this day in New York, animal cruelty is in most instances a misdemeanor, normally punishable by no more than a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Judges presiding over these cases can only hope that the offender avails himself or herself of an anger management program that may prevent future violence against animals and human beings. But there is little a judge can do to prevent potential future crimes.
The New York Agricultural and Markets Law provides some protection against animal cruelty. It is a Class A misdemeanor in New York for any person to “overdrive, overload, torture or cruelly beat or unjustifiably injure, maim, mutilate or kill” any animal, regardless of ownership.11 New York ourts have held that “cruelty to an animal includes every unjustifiable act, omission, or neglect causing pain, suffering, or death.”12
The Legislature took note of the correlation between animal cruelty and violence towards humans, when it enacted the Aggravated Cruelty statute,13 which provides harsher penalties for a heightened standard of cruelty.14 It is a felony, punishable by up to two years in prison “to kill or cause serious physical injury to a companion animal with aggravated cruelty.”15 Aggravated cruelty is defined in the statute as cruelty that is “intended to cause extreme physical pain” or is “done or carried out in an especially depraved or sadistic manner.”16
Courts have begun to consider circumstances in which cruelty towards an animal reaches the level “depraved” or “sadistic.”17 The Appellate Division noted, in response to defendant’s claim that the heightened level of cruelty was not warranted because death was instantaneous, that “the legislative history of the statute indicates that the crime was established in recognition of the correlation between violence against animals and subsequent violence against human beings. Thus, it must be inferred that the Legislature’s concern was with the state of mind of the perpetrator rather than that of the victim.”18 This decision indicates that the heightened level of cruelty standard may be broadly interpreted and applied.
At a recent Domestic Violence Awareness Month kickoff event sponsored by the Third Judicial District Gender Fairness Committee, which I chair, a diverse group of experts explored the animal cruelty/domestic violence connection and shared their experiences. Nearly 200 judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, caseworkers and law enforcement officers attended the program, gaining invaluable insight on how to secure justice for the two and four legged victims of abuse.
The committee partnered with the Governor’s Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, the New York State, Albany County and Women’s Bar Associations, Legal Project, Albany Law School, and other stakeholders. Hopefully the event will be a catalyst, encouraging more effective court/community responses.
Obviously, judges cannot make decisions based on concerns over what an offender may do in the future. But from both a legal and societal perspective, there are steps that can and should be taken to at least put the odds in favor of the victims and potential victims.
First, we need increased reporting and cross reporting of incidents of animal cruelty so that authorities in various disciplines—law enforcement, social service, etc.—are aware of a perpetrator’s penchant for animal abuse. If, for example, a caseworker handling domestic violence learns of animal abuse, that abuse should be reported separately and prosecuted separately. Likewise, if a caseworker in the animal welfare community learns of domestic abuse, that incident should be reported immediately as well. Domestic violence thrives on silence.
Second, we need to step up our efforts to ensure the protection of companion animals, so that a victim need not be in a position of compromising their own safety to ensure the safety of a beloved pet. The Mohawk Hudson Humane Society has a “foster” program established in conjunction with local domestic violence shelters.19 Similar programs have been established in other parts of the state. These programs enable victims to leave their abuser, knowing that their pets will be safe and cared for until they find new housing.
And finally, in appropriate cases, we in the judiciary need to issue orders protecting pets and/or removing pets from abusive owners. Legislation authorizing such orders of protection was passed several years ago.20
But the first step is awareness by all of the participants in the social service and criminal justice systems that animal abuse is a gateway crime, and that what may at first appear to be a garden variety nuisance offense could be the tip of a much more insidious and sinister iceberg.
1. Febres, Jeniimarie, et. al., Adulthood Animal Abuse Among Men Arrested for Domestic Violence, 30 Violence Against Women 1059 (2014).
2. Tucker, Samantha D.E., Note: No Way to Treat Man’s Best Friend: The Uncounted Injuries of Animal Cruelty Victims, 19 Animal L. 151, 154 – 155 (2012).
3. Human Abuse Linked to Cruelty to Animals, available at: http://www.peta.org/issues/companion animal-issues/cruel practices/human animal abuse/.
4. See generally, National Link Coalition, The Link between Violence to People and Violence to Animals, http://nationallinkcoalition.org/wp content/uploads/2013/01/LinkSummaryBooklet 16pp.pdf (2013).
5. Marybeth Bittel, The Link between Domestic Violence & Animal Abuse, Tails Mag, April/May 2015, available at: http://www.tailsinc.com/2015/04/the link between domestic violence animal abuse/.
6. See, Supra note 4 at 6.
7. See, Supra note 5.
8. Allie Phillips, How the Dynamics between Animal Abuse Affect the Forensic Interview Process, 1 Reasonable Efforts No. 4 (2004), http://www.ndaa.org/reasonable efforts v1no4.html.
9. Animal Abuse and Human Abuse: Partners in Crime, available at: http://www.peta.org/issues/companion-animal issues/companion animals factsheets/animal abuse human abuse partners crime/.
10. Facts about the Link between Violence to People and Violence to animals, available at: https://www.animalhumanesociety.org/webfm/574.
11. NY CLS Agr & M § 353
12. See e.g., People v. O’Rourke, 369 N.Y.S.2d 335, 340 (N.Y. City Crim. Ct. 1975); People v. Sitors, 12 Misc. 3d 928 (N.Y. County Ct. 2006).
13. People v. Garcia, 29 A.D.3d 255, 261 (N.Y. App. Div. 1st Dep’t 2006).
14. NY CLS Agr & M § 353 a.
15. NY CLS Agr & M § 350
16. See, Supra note 14.
17. See e.g., People v Augustine, 89 A.D.3d 1238 (N.Y. App. Div. 3d Dep’t 2011) (where the court held that “five shots to the head of a healthy dog when any one of those shots would have been fatal qualifies as conduct “carried out in an especially depraved or sadistic manner”).
18. See, Infra note 20.
19. MHHS, Safe Haven Information, available at: http://www.mohawkhumane.org/safehaven.html.
20. N.Y. CPL §530.12(6)(a); NY CPL §530.13 (I)(C).