A new Valley task force aims to exploit the link between animal abuse and violent crime.
It sounds like an episode of Criminal Minds: A Valley woman calls the police, worried that the dog in her neighbor’s backyard is dying under the hot sun. Police arrive to find a dead animal with no shelter, food or water. Finding a second dog in the yard with a gash above its eye, the now-suspicious officers ask the homeowner if they can come inside and look around. The owner obliges. Inside, police find an 8-year-old girl, severely neglected.
The story is sad, true and far too common. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, people who abuse animals are five times more likely to commit violent crimes against human beings as those with no such history – a fact not lost on Alison Ferrante. Well-acquainted with domestic violence, the Gilbert prosecutor got more involved in animal abuse cases after registering the link between the two crimes. Last November, she created a groundbreaking animal cruelty task force made up of law enforcement, prosecutors, animal control inspectors, veterinarians, child protective services and other professionals from around Phoenix and Tucson. By pooling their ideas and expertise, Ferrante hopes to create transparency for investigating and prosecuting abuse cases, and to make sure those who do harm – be it to a child, adult or four-legged family member – pay.
Ferrante has witnessed terrible cruelty. She once saw a dog that had been set on fire by its owner and another beaten so badly it had to have its leg amputated. In both cases, children were in the same household. “If I were to guess, if there’s not physical abuse going on, there’s emotional abuse,” she says. “I wanted to help educate judges and officers [on the link]. Animals and children can’t speak for themselves.”
She works with Gilbert Police Chief Tim Dorn to teach police officers that animal abuse and domestic violence are often comorbid crimes, and urges officers to involve child protective services on animal abuse cases. “Some officers don’t realize that’s what’s going on, or they do know it, but get motivated when they hear about the link,” says Ferrante, who hopes to expand the program to police and fire academies.
Sergeant Jesse Sanger of the Gilbert Police Department says he’s seen more than one example of an abuse case that starts with an animal and escalates to family members. While officers responding to an animal abuse call can invoke probable cause only for that specific crime, if they also suspect domestic abuse, “We can always talk to possible victims and see if they want to talk to us,” he says. “We [investigate] to the fullest possible point. Domestic violence can be discovered.”
The task force was developed by Ferrante after she joined The Humane LINK, a nonprofit that began in Phoenix in 1999 to raise awareness of the animal abuse/domestic violence link. Fellow LINK member Kari Nienstedt, who also serves as state director of the Humane Society, has witnessed the dynamic firsthand: “I knew a woman who delayed leaving an abusive relationship because she knew he would kill her dog if she left.”
On the issue of preventing animal abuse here in the Valley, Nienstedt says, “We can always do better.” She hopes for a more proactive and preventive environment. “When people see animal abuse, [they should] report it. They may think, ‘Oh, it’s just animals,’ but violence is violence, and we need to stop it before it escalates.”
Animals Held Hostage
In cases of domestic violence, attackers will often use family pets as leverage against their victims. Findings by the American Humane Association and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence show that 25 to 40 percent of battered women stay in an abusive situation because they’re worried about what their batterer will do to their pet if they leave. Of the women in domestic violence shelters who own pets, 71 percent said their batterer had injured, killed or threatened family pets as a means to control their victims. The Coalition also reports that 70 percent of animal abusers also had records for other crimes.
As for which pets are most vulnerable, the Humane Society of the United States says the most common victims of animal cruelty are dogs, which made up nearly 65 percent of the reported cases in 2007. Thankfully, states are paying attention. Currently, 47 states can charge animal abusers with a felony. Before 1986, only four states had such a provision.
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