When it comes to uncomfortable issues like neglect and abuse, the American Humane Association and the Richmond SPCA say the link between animal violence and human violence is more alarming than you think. 

Breaking the Chain

Nobody wants to hear about the hell of a dog burning alive.

It's sickening and, to most, the most egregious torture imaginable. It's precisely what four adolescent boys did and videotaped and is now the subject of a controversial A&E documentary that connects animal cruelty to violent crimes against people.

But the controversy is not over the heinous behavior; it's over the mere acknowledgement of it.

As violent crime permeates the news with bizarre cases of unthinkable cruelty, veterinarians, social workers, police officers and others are beginning to look for answers in a link between animal abuse and violence toward people. What's more, it's now getting attention from advocacy groups and legislators in hopes that malicious behavior can be identified and stopped before it escalates to serious injury, even death.

According to the American Humane Association, more than 1 million children in the United States are victims of abuse or neglect. Similarly, thousands of animals also are the victims of malicious cruelty — including starvation — and other forms of violence. Reports show that in domestic and child abuse cases where there is a pet in the home, 60 percent of the time the animal also is being abused. But it's only been in the past eight years that reports have shown these crimes frequently to occur simultaneously within a cycle of family violence.

For some, it's a privacy issue. People don't want to talk about it. It's one thing to hear horror stories on the news; it's quite another to bring them to the table for discussion. Decapitating cats, impaling frogs and burning dogs are acts so inhumane; they are believed to be carried out only by the Jeffrey Dahmers and David Berkowitzes of society. That is precisely the point the American Humane Association attempts to drive home. Both convicted murderers killed numerous animals in their youth. In these cases, and regrettably in many more, the warning signs were missed.

Last week, the Richmond SPCA and the AHA held a daylong seminar here to educate a variety of social service professionals, law enforcement officers and other members of the community about the connection between animal neglect and abuse and abuses suffered by children and adults.

Only in the past year has the Richmond SPCA begun to put into place programs that address the link between animal and human abuse. Since February, the SPCA has teamed up with the YWCA to provide foster care for pets in situations where a spouse has been reluctant to leave the house out of fear that the pet might be harmed or killed by the abuser. So far, four dogs and a ferret have found safe places to stay while families are getting the help they need.

This week, a new program between the SPCA and the Medical College of Virginia's Virginia Treatment Center will begin as a pet visitation activity. An adoptable dog or cat - carefully screened for good health and temperament — will visit at-risk children and adolescents who have been removed from the home and reside at the center. The program's aim is to gradually move into a therapeutic stage where once-abused children — identified as being at the highest risk of becoming abusers themselves — learn compassion and gentle behavior. They learn how to develop relationships based on these behaviors rather than on outbursts of violence. The SPCA is exploring another initiative called Shiloh. The program, which began a few years ago in Northern Virginia, teams four or five adolescents who have been identified as displaying violence — particularly toward animals — to train an animal that has been the victim of abuse. Richmond SPCA officials met with Shiloh representatives for the first time last week to discuss the resources needed to start a similar program here.

It's not only the SPCA that aims to pay more than lip service to the link between animal violence and domestic and child abuse.

"Anecdotally, in my career I've seen a lot of children who've abused animals," says Dr. Kevin Connelly, a pediatrician at MCV Hospitals who started the pet visitation program, Paws for Help, five years ago at MCV. "[Children] who treat animals maliciously may have been abused themselves," he says. "The biggest reason I've seen for this is they're raised without knowing compassion. If they see someone not be merciful, they're going to grow up and be that way."

Lt. Tom McKnight, officer in charge of the vice division of the Richmond City Police has seen his share of animal abuse, both in and out of the home. He agrees that animal violence leads to other types of violent crimes. Right now, he has a team of 10 officers working in conjunction with local animal-control officers to investigate claims of dog fighting in Richmond. "Is this [link] part of it? You bet. Are we involved? You bet," says McKnight. But he contends it's not easy. It takes time, training and resources. To date, there haven't yet been any dog-fighting convictions. And he believes the perpetrators are keeping a low profile. "It's seemed we're always a day late and a dollar short," confesses McKnight. "We're very new at this and we're learning."

It's a learning curve that not only the police and animal control struggle with. "One of the mistakes we make in communicating is assuming the next person knows the connection," says Denise Deisler, assistant executive director for the Richmond SPCA. "If [advocacy groups] share something in common, it's the horrors and emotions we deal with every day. We need to quit comparing who cares the most and which life is worth the most."

"Crime statistics will tell you violent crime is down," says McKnight. Even so, he suggests that abuse today, whether to animals or people, is more horrific than in the past. "It's more egregious. It makes you jump up and say, 'Oh my God! I can't believe that just happened.'"

Disbelief is often followed by a horror so intense it causes communities to clam up rather than confront it, says Michael Kaufman, director of education and animal services with the American Humane Association. "It's something we don't want to talk about," says Kaufman. And the reticence has led to everything from continued child abuse to violent acts to heinous crimes committed over the Internet. "We know there are even 'Crush Sites' out there where people get their jollies watching small animals being crushed by women in high heels."

But policing the Internet for such sites and policing homes for neglect and abuse are beyond the control of any one agency. That's why child welfare and animal groups are lobbying in many states — not yet successfully in Virginia — for mandatory reporting of abuse by reciprocating authorities. Animal control officers would be required to report child abuse and social workers would be forced to report cases of animal neglect and abuse. Proposed mandates in some states even include veterinarians.

Animal abuse in Virginia is loosely defined and difficult to enforce. A conviction carries a misdemeanor charge unless the crime is the second offense within five years and one of those two incidents resulted in the death of an animal. Only then is the crime a felony. And this, according to Richmond SPCA Executive Director Robin Starr, is far too lenient. "It's the best we could get [the General Assembly] to do," she says of her lobbying experience two years ago. "You can't believe how hard we struggled to just get that."

Starr argues that for too long Virginia has tried to separate animal violence from abuse to children and adults in domestic violence situations. "There's an interrelationship here. We should be terribly concerned about any type of violent behavior. If you see it you should be disturbed and not dismiss it as 'boys will be boys.'"

For more information about the SPCA or its programs visit richmondspca.org or the American Humane Association at amerhumane.org

You can reach Brandon Walters at brandonw@styleweekly.com or 358-0825, ext.


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