The following post appears courtesy of Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West and Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs Mary Lou Leary.
The images that emerge from animal cruelty cases are both difficult to look at and impossible to turn away from. We don’t encounter animal cruelty every day, but the Justice Department has charged at least 190 defendants with animal cruelty offenses during the past six years, and has assisted state and local prosecutors in many others. Some of these cases involved flagrant abuses of show horses, complex underground dog fighting schemes, and stolen animals sold for medical research. Just last month, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Kansas charged the ringleaders of a multi-state dog fighting scheme with felony animal fighting. More than a dozen federal, state and local agencies helped with the investigation and rescued 79 dogs.
Since we know there are established links between animal cruelty and different types of violent behavior, including domestic violence, child abuse and elder abuse, today we had the unique opportunity to host a listening session on the intersection between animal cruelty and public safety. We were joined by experts from a wide range of disciplines, including federal and state prosecutors, forensic scientists and veterinarians, judges, law enforcement officers, as well as representatives from the elder abuse, domestic violence, children services and animal welfare fields. Today’s listening session also drew wide interest across the department – from our own research and policy advisors, to our criminal prosecutors and civil litigators.
Both in scale and scope, this conversation was the first of its kind in the department. It is part of a broader dialogue that we will continue to have about preventing animal cruelty and better understanding its intersection with interpersonal violence and organized crime.
For example, investigators have documented child abuse cases where the perpetrators threatened to kill the child’s pet in order to enforce the child’s silence and compliance. Surveys of domestic violence shelter residents reveal that batterers sometimes harm or threaten to harm pets as part of their strategy for controlling the behavior of family members. And research suggests that acts of animal cruelty committed by young people may predict violent behavior in the future. Intervening to address animal cruelty may be key to changing patterns of conduct for positive long-term effects.
Through raids and criminal prosecutions, we have also learned firsthand that certain forms of animal cruelty – such as dog and cockfighting – can be part of a highly organized interstate criminal industry that not only harms animals, but also threatens public safety. Dog and cockfighting ventures frequently attract other criminal activities, including drug trafficking, unlawful possession of firearms, illegal gambling, stolen vehicles and property offenses, and child endangerment.
We still have more to explore and learn about these connections, and our Office of Justice Programs’ Animal Cruelty Working Group has been working to do just that.