By Wayne Pacelle
A law recently passed in Suffolk County, New York to require people convicted of cruelty to animals to register with a publicly accessible website or face jail time and fines. This idea has surfaced in several other states this past year, including California, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. It's an animal cruelty registry list, like a “Megan’s Law” for animals, and it's an idea being widely discussed among individuals and organizations determined to fight cruelty.
By providing a resource for the public to identify neighbors convicted of animal cruelty, proponents argue, individuals can take steps to protect their animals and themselves. It provides a tool to allow people to be more alert to those individuals convicted of cruelty to animals. Proponents claim that the stigma of being registered for all to see will serve to deter people from committing animal crimes.
This idea springs from the right instinct: to be tough on people involved in cruelty. We at The HSUS agree wholeheartedly that we need to know more about people convicted of cruelty to animals. The documented connection between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence and crime tempts us to see this approach as a potential tool for advancing a humane society. But there are a few other angles to consider.
For some years, we have been pressing the Federal Bureau of Investigation to specifically identify animal-related crimes in the Uniform Crime Reports system utilized by law enforcement agencies nationwide, rather than lump them into the "miscellaneous" category. Without a reporting requirement, there is no way to track the number of reported incidents of animal cruelty cases each year. This incomplete picture of the problem impedes efforts to properly focus enforcement resources and violence prevention programs.
The proper identification of animal cruelty crimes in the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, once in effect, like the tracking of hate crimes and other important categories, would be national in scope. Within the FBI system, every incident would be reported, whether or not it results in an arrest or conviction. By its nature, it is a much more inclusive system and the proper cataloging of animal cruelty offenses would enhance its value for helping authorities to determine where potential and actual criminal activity is occurring. Having proper data on where and with what frequency cruelty is occurring would help guide lawmakers on policy decisions and law enforcement and nonprofit agencies on allocation of scarce resources.
While high-profile animal cruelty cases often make the news, the overwhelming proportion of animal abuse is perpetrated by people who neglect their own animals. These people, including hoarders afflicted with serious mental health problems, are unlikely to pose a physical or violent threat to their neighbors' pets (or their neighbors, for that matter).
When convicted of cruelty these people should be punished. But experience has made clear that such individuals would pose a lesser threat to animals in the future if they received comprehensive mental health counseling. Shaming them with a public Internet profile is unlikely to affect their future behavior—except perhaps to isolate them further from society and promote increased distrust of authority figures trying to help them. And would people other than those absolutely committed to our cause really check such a website anyway?
When someone is convicted and punished for cruelty, moreover, does shunning or shaming them forever do any good for any animals? Perhaps we are drawn to the idea as a result of our intense hatred of what they've done or the general frustration with the criminal justice system's failure to fully enforce laws that are often weaker than they should be. To that end, efforts to stop animal abuse and improve public safety should focus on upgrading criminal animal cruelty and neglect penalties and encouraging more vigorous application of these laws.
In addressing criminal misconduct, our society must strike the right balance between punishment and rehabilitation. Unlike sexual predation—the inspiration for abuse registry systems around the country—animal abuse is not deemed by professionals as a pre-disposed, hard-wired condition. People who abuse animals stand a much better chance of being rehabilitated, especially if identified early at a young age. And thank goodness for that. If people who have wronged animals in the past want to put such behavior behind them, we should surely hope that society can make that possible.
We see many examples of this in our work. Our End Dogfighting program works with former dogfighters to change the culture and turn young lives around. Youngsters in Chicago, Atlanta and Philadelphia are learning new ways to relate to their dogs. And they are becoming ambassadors in their communities spreading the anti-dogfighting message.
No group has put more resources into stopping animal cruelty and abuse, or done so with greater effect, than The HSUS. We have worked relentlessly through the years to upgrade state and federal animal fighting, animal cruelty and animal neglect laws. Thirty years ago, there were but a handful of felony-level penalties for cruelty. Now all 50 states treat dogfighting as a felony offense, 46 states treat malicious cruelty as a felony, and 39 states allow judges to hand out felony penalties for cockfighting offenses. There is a federal law that makes possessing or fighting animals a felony offense, too. Strong laws against cruelty can deter criminals or allow us to lock up people who break the rules and leave a trail of animal victims.
And once those laws are on the books, they must be enforced. We have rewards programs and tip lines for information that leads to the arrest of people involved in cruelty, animal fighting, and even poaching. And we've trained more than 5,000 law enforcement officials in the identification and prosecution of animal abusers. We have just finalized our state legislative agenda for 2011, and will pursue substantial penalty upgrades of animal cruelty or fighting laws in 25 states.
Animal cruelty—like other crimes—must be reported, classified, and analyzed in a comprehensive manner that results in swift and efficient enforcement of the law and the general improvement of society. It is not clear that the current round of proposals to create a patchwork of county-by-county or state-by-state public registry databases would materially advance these goals. In fact, it probably does nothing to help these people learn a new way of viewing and treating animals. Strengthening the human-animal bond is our ultimate goal, not deepening the break. We must utilize what energy and resources we can muster on the most effective approaches to the scourge of cruelty.