FBI upgrades animal cruelty, paves way to help domestic violence survivors and their pets

FBI upgrades animal cruelty, paves way to help domestic violence survivors and their pets

FBI upgrades animal cruelty, paves way to help domestic violence survivors and their pets

By Martha Rosenburg and Robert Wilbur

What do Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffry Dahmer, and a rogue gallery of other serial killers have in common, besides murdering enough adults and children to stock a city morgue?  The answer is that as children they tortured animals,  Dahmer may be the most bizarre: After he had tortured and killed frogs, cats and dogs, he decapitated them and mounted their heads on sticks.  His own puppy suffered this fate. 

The good news is that it may soon be easier to track down serial killers and other lowlife. A year ago this month, in September, 2014, after 12 years of pressure from animal groups and the National Sheriff’s Association, the FBI announced that it would upgrade animal cruelty to a Group A felony, along with homicide, kidnapping, and rape.  The FBI’s tougher position means that it will monitor animal cruelty more closely, alerting local law enforcement to patterns of criminality in their area.  What is more, legislators are likely to take animal cruelty more seriously, leading to tougher laws.

A literature search of crime reports involving “domestic violence” and “animal cruelty” reveals chilling examples of how the two are linked.  In one domestic violence shelter 71 percent of women with companion animals reported that their partner threatened, injured or killed their pet.  What is more, surveys indicate that between 18 percent and 48 percent of battered women delayed their escape or returned to their violent partner out of fear for the welfare of their companion animals.

The FBI’s upgrading of animal cruelty to a Group A felony is almost certain to give a boost to a bipartisan bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Ileana Lehitnen (R-Fla).  The Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act of 2015 addresses “the one third of domestic violence victims who delayed their departure from abusive relationships out of concern for the well-being of their pets” by jail or stiff fines for abusers. The PAWS Act was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security in March of 2015. The bill has bipartisan sponsorship in the Senate.

Nature vs. nurture

You don’t have to be a spouse abuser or serial killer to commit acts of unspeakable animal cruelty: The preschool years are late enough, and children of five or six are capable of even more imaginative torture. This raises the nature versus nurture question: Are children animal abusers because their brain circuits are “hard wired” from birth, or is the reason a failure of some kind, such as child abuse, by the parents?

Most likely the answer lies somewhere in between.  Children may have an inborn predilection that can in some cases become unmasked by failed parenting. Whatever the truth may be, we would do well to heed the admonition of anthropologist Margaret Mead, who observed, “One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or torture an animal and get away with it.”

We now know that, if there is to be any hope for such a child, remediation must begin before the age of three, when the neural pathways in the brain are being developed at a rapid pace—assuming any intervention at all will abort a streak of cruelty.

Martha Rosenberg has been an investigative journalist for 20 years.  Her new book is Born with a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health. 

Robert Wilbur is a consultant in psychopharmacology; he also writes semi-popular articles on animal rights, psychiatry and the criminal justice system