Increase penalties for animal cruelty

Increase penalties for animal cruelty
The Vancouver Sun
November 17, 2014

A murder charge against Brian Whitlock, the Vancouver man who infamously beat his German Shepherd dog “Captain” to death in 2012, has prompted a renewed discussion about the link between animal abuse and violence toward humans.

In the past, this discussion has revolved around a number of serial killers (including Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz and Albert DeSalvo, the “Boston Strangler”) who were found to have abused animals earlier in life.  In Canada, it has been alleged that accused murderer Luka Magnotta also tortured and killed animals.  And B.C.’s notorious Kayla Bourque, described by a psychiatrist as an “affectionless psychopath” after she butchered two family pets, expressed a desire to kill a homeless person.

While academic studies have validated such links, a recent report by the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) in the U.S. warns that a focus on sensational and extreme cases of serial killers risks losing sight of the greater number of “everyday” crimes linked with animal abuse.

The report, which reviewed the growing body of literature on the subject, cites particularly strong evidence of the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence, highlighting some alarming findings:

  • Animal abuse is more prevalent in homes that experience child abuse and domestic violence.
  • Twelve independent studies report that between 18% and 48% of battered women have delayed their decision to leave their abuser or have returned to their abuser out of fear for the welfare of their pets or livestock.
  • Family pets may be targets of threats of harm or killing to “emotionally blackmail” and coerce human victims to comply with and remain silent about abuse.
  • A 2007 study found that women seeking refuge at a family violence shelter were nearly 11 times more likely to report that their partner had hurt or killed their pet.
  • Results from the National Youth Survey Family Study in the U.S. found that parents with early histories of animal abuse were 3.6 times more likely to be violence perpetrators than were parents with no history of animal abuse.
  • Forty-three per cent of school shooters in the U.S. have animal abuse in their background. (One of the Columbine High School shooters was known to torture mice.)

This kind of evidence no doubt influenced the recent decision by the U.S Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to make animal cruelty a “Group A felony” with its own category.  The change means U.S. law enforcement agencies now have to report incidents and arrests in four areas: simple or gross neglect; intentional abuse and torture; organized abuse, including dogfighting and cockfighting; and animal sexual abuse. The American SPCA says the move will help get better sentences and influence juries, as well as assist in identifying young offenders to get them help earlier.

Here in Vancouver (and more widely on social media) there are calls for tougher sentencing for animal cruelty, arguing that Brian Whitlock’s sentence of 60 days in jail was woefully insufficient. Many have also pointed to a lack of mental health services for individuals like Whitlock.  These are valid points, but deeper and broader changes in Canada’s law enforcement and justice system are also needed to get to the root of the problem.

The FBI’s decision to take animal abuse more seriously is instructive, as are some of the recommendations in NDAA report.  It suggests that law enforcement and social agencies dealing with incidents of family violence take a range of measures, including:

  • Asking children about pets during forensic interviews and medical examinations to learn more about family dynamics and who is important in the child’s life.
  • Asking families seeking shelter whether there are pets at home whose welfare is also threatened.
  • Providing help (including the use of therapy animals) to children who have experienced or witnessed abuse.
  • Introducing cross-training and cross-reporting among law enforcement, animal protection and social welfare agencies to help recognise signs of domestic violence or abuse (both animal and human).

There is no doubt that animal cruelty and violence against humans are linked.  Canada’s justice system needs to recognize this and start making changes that will help make both animals and people safer.