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FBI turns animal torture into top-tier felony

Jeffrey Dahmer impaled the heads of dogs, frogs and cats on sticks.

David Berkowitz, known as the “Son of Sam,” poisoned his mother’s parakeet.

Albert DeSalvo, aka the “Boston Strangler,” trapped cats and dogs in wooden crates and killed them by shooting arrows through the boxes.

Studies have shown that young people who torture and kill animals are prone to violence against people later in life, if their behavior goes unchecked. A new federal category for animal cruelty crimes could help root out those pet abusers before their behavior worsens and provide a boost to prosecutions, an animal welfare group says.

For years, the FBI has filed animal abuse under the label “other,” along with a variety of lesser crimes. That makes incidents of cruelty hard to find, hard to count and hard to track.

The bureau announced recently that it would make animal cruelty a Group A felony with its own category. The change puts animal cruelty on the same level as such crimes as homicide, arson and assault.

“It will help get better sentences, sway juries and make for better plea bargains,” said Madeline Bernstein, president and CEO of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles and a former New York prosecutor.

The category also will help identify young offenders, and a defendant might realize “if he gets help now, he won’t turn into Jeffrey Dahmer,” she said.

Law enforcement agencies will 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 FBI said in statement. The bureau didn’t answer questions beyond a short statement.

“The immediate benefit is it will be in front of law enforcement every month when they have to do their crime reports,” said John Thompson, interim executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association. He worked to get the new animal cruelty category instituted. 

Officers will start to see the data are facts and “not just somebody saying the ‘Son of Sam’ killed animals before he went to human victims,” said Thompson, a retired assistant sheriff from Prince George’s County, Maryland. He said some 70 percent of school shooters abused animals prior to attacking people.

It will take time and money to update FBI and law enforcement databases nationwide, revise manuals and send out guidelines, Thompson said. So there won’t be any data collected until January 2016. After that, it will take several months before there are numbers to analyze.

The new animal cruelty statistics will allow police and counselors to work with children who show early signs of trouble, so that a preschooler hurting animals today isn’t going to harm people two years from now, Bernstein said.

The FBI’s category will track crimes nationwide and is bound to give animal cruelty laws in all 50 states more clout. Many states are seeing more of those convicted of animal cruelty being sentenced to prison, in marked contrast to years past.

Whether talking about state laws or the FBI change, it is clear “that regardless of whether people care about how animals are treated, people — like legislators and judges — care about humans, and they can’t deny the data,” said Natasha Dolezal, director of the animal law program in the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

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