Cruel and Unusual

Animal cruelty cases are high priority, but tough to prosecute.

When two elderly women, walking along Continental Road in Green Valley on April 7, 2002, spotted a loose puppy, they thought it was simply lost and strolled closer to check. What they found was a horrifying sight.

The limping dog was bloodied from being skinned alive, having been cut to the bone along its back, sides and part of its stomach. The women called Pima County Animal Control, which took the 10-month-old female heeler mix to a veterinarian--who had no choice but to put it down.

The offense was referred to the Pima County Sheriff's Animal Cruelty Task Force.

That case caused widespread public outrage. A flood of reward donations came in almost immediately, jumping from $10,000 to $28,000 in 10 days. Today, with few leads in the case, the reward money is more than $45,000--the largest combined reward in an animal cruelty case in county history.

It's not the only recent animal torture case that has received widespread press but no convictions (see sidebar).

"It's indicative to animal cruelty crimes in general that they're very hard to investigate and prosecute, and that's partially because the victims can't testify," says Marsh Myers, public information officer for the Animal Cruelty Task Force and education coordinator for the Humane Society of Southern Arizona.

Stephanie Nichols-Long, president of the Animal Defense League of Arizona, adds: "As an attorney, sometimes I know that if you don't have the evidence for a case, (prosecutors have to decide): Is it better to keep resources open for other cases that you have a good chance of solving and prosecuting?"

HEINOUS ACTS AGAINST companion pets are taken seriously since the Animal Cruelty Taskforce of Southern Arizona was formed by the Pima County Sheriff's Department in December 1999 following a change in Arizona law. In August 1999, then-Gov. Jane Hull signed into law an act amending the animal cruelty law, changing the penalties for those committing animal cruelty from a class one misdemeanor to a class six felony. Everyone agrees these are violent crimes.

"There were some violations that went to a class 6 felony, and then there were others that were added that had never been there before," says Pima County Detective Mike Duffy, co-chair of the Animal Cruelty Task Force. "And because of the law change, law enforcement had to start doing better investigations, because we can't ignore felonies."

To carry out the mandate, ACT has 42 member organizations--including all major law enforcement agencies in Southern Arizona. It's funded through donations administered by the Humane Society of Southern Arizona.

Some 90 percent of animal cruelty calls filter initially through Pima Animal Control, according to Mark Hammond, who's been at PAC for 20 years. Many of those complaints are about animals that are illegally left in cars or tied-up outside in the heat and involve citations or other actions.

"If nobody's home, the dog gets automatically impounded--no ifs, ands or buts," says Hammond. "If you get a 911 call where somebody is taking a hatchet to their dog, automatically that will go right to the police department, and they'll send an officer."

Such a report sends up a red flag, and detectives from the Animal Cruelty Task Force follow up and determine whether it's a felony or not.

Besides bumping the state cruelty laws up to a felony, Arizona veterinarians are now required to report any suspected animal abuse cases that come under their care.

"It's kind of the equivalent of the type of law that deals with child abuse--if someone brings a child in and it looks like the child has been beaten up, the physician is required by law to report that," says Myers.

ONE REASON FOR ALL THE manpower and new laws is a concern among animal cruelty experts that animal violence escalates up the food chain to crimes against people.

When Duffy attended FBI profiling school, he said, instructors spent the first two days on animal cruelty.

"It's a warning sign of more bad stuff that's about to come," says Duffy.

The FBI has recognized the connection since the 1970s and cites analysis of serial killers finding that some 80 percent had killed or tortured animals as children. Other research has shown consistent patterns of animal cruelty among perpetrators of child abuse, spouse abuse and elder abuse. Even the American Psychiatric Association considers animal cruelty a diagnostic criteria of conduct disorder.

A 1997 survey of 50 of the largest battered women's shelters in the United States found that 85 percent of women and 63 percent of children entering shelters mentioned incidents of pet abuse in the family. Children who have witnessed domestic violence or who have been the victims of physical or sexual abuse may also become animal abusers themselves, imitating the violence they have seen or experienced.

"Eighty percent of the time, when you've got an animal victimized, it's being victimized because of some unresolved issue between that animal's owner and another human," says Duffy.

Since 2000, the Humane Society of the United States has conducted a yearly nonscientific study of animal cruelty cases in order to profile the perpetrators. The 2002 Report of Animal Cruelty Cases, released last April, is based on information from 1,400 animal cruelty cases involving at least 1,674 perpetrators. Of the cases in the report, 830 (59 percent) involved intentional cruelty toward animals and 570 (41 percent) involved extreme animal neglect. The findings paint a disturbing picture:

· Adult and teenage males commit a high percentage of intentional animal cruelty.

· Males have a higher percentage of involvement in animal neglect than females, but the gender gap is much more significant with regard to intentional cruelty.

· Companion animals are the most common victims of animal cruelty, though cruelty to cats is not reported as frequently as cruelty to dogs.

· Shooting, beating, torturing and mutilation are the most common forms of intentional cruelty.

· Males are significantly more often the perpetrators when animal cruelty occurs in connection with family violence.

"If we were to find cardboard boxes with arrows through them with stray dogs and cats gathered in the box, we'd jump on that in a hurry, because we know that's how Jeffery Dahmer got started," notes Duffy.

WHETHER THE NUMBER OF animal cruelty cases is increasing in Southern Arizona is up for debate. One thing's for sure: The number of cases reported has skyrocketed--from 200 cases in 1999 to more than 600 in 2001.

"That's because there were more people knowing what to look for and more cases that used to be reported as vandalism or attempted robbery," says Duffy.

Duffy says that the "official" numbers put the area below national averages, but notes that if a larger felony is committed at the time, the animal cruelty case may get the back seat.

"I would venture to guess that we've got just as many, if not more than, anyone else; it's just handled like a felony," says Duffy.

Myers says that a similar increase in reporting happened with domestic violence in the '70s and '80s when there was increased awareness of the crime.

It's one thing to have new laws and myriad studies to back-up the precursor crime connection; it's another thing for the courts to understand it--including judges and jurors.

"Some do; there are others, however, who still are of the opinion that, 'Well, it's just a cat or it's just a dog; what's the big deal?'" says Kathleen Mayer, supervisor of the Pima County Attorney Office's Special Victims Unit and co-chair of the Task Force.

Myers agrees.

"You can put together a really good case, and if you have a judge that doesn't understand all the connections or the seriousness of the crime, they can give the person a slap on the wrist and send them on their way," he says.

And Mayer thinks the current class 6 felony distinction doesn't fit the crime--it's too lenient.

"A Class 6 felony under many circumstances is an insufficient felony designation," says Mayer. "It reinforces to some members of the bench that these are not very serious, and they don't handle them very seriously."

The first felony cruelty case to go to trial in the state involved a 50-year-old Sedona man who "euthanized" his sick German shepherd puppy with a hammer.

"So the jury convicted him of felony cruelty, which was very interesting," says Phoenix lawyer Nichols-Long.

"The jury did a great job, but the sentencing on that case was really weak," says Nichols-Long, who notes the man got suspended jail time. "The jury got it, but the judge didn't."

It's even more difficult when kids are concerned.

"I was just assigned the case of the juvenile who shot the arrow through the dog, and that's come to our unit because he's very close to being an adult," says Mayer of the Special Victims Unit.

That case involves a teenager who, angered by the neighbor's dog trespassing in his yard, shot the dog with a bow and arrow. The case brings up interesting court issues.

"It's a callous attitude toward a living thing and a remarkable lack of empathy and readiness to turn to violence to solve a relatively minor problem," says Mayer. "A jury, however, might not hold that person as accountable as they might the person who skinned the puppy."

Nichols-Long says juvenile cases present a special challenge to the system.

"In some cases where there's a plea agreement, they have a pre-sentencing evaluation that basically makes recommendations on what the sentence should be, and I think that's where there's a huge gap in the system, especially in the juvenile system," he says. "You need to look at whether there was a triggering event in this kid's life that explains the action, or is this kid on the road to major violent behavior."

THE ANIMAL CRUELTY TASK Force of Southern Arizona was named winner of the annual Pet Protector Award grand prize by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Friskies PetCare Co. Inc. last year.

The award recipients were judged on a variety of qualifications, including proactive programs that protect animals from abuse, complaint processing, enhanced prosecution, development of cooperative relationships between law enforcement and other agencies in the community and educational programs designed to raise public awareness about these crimes.

This year, Duffy won the American Veterinary Medical Association's Human Award for 2003, an annual award for a non-veterinarian who has demonstrated exceptional compassion for the welfare of animals. Duffy will receive a Tiffany crystal sculpture and $500, which he plans to donate to the task force.

Despite the national accolades, gruesome cases remain open--at a time when the county may cut the sheriff's department's budget affecting animal cruelty investigations.

"I think our accolades come from the fact that we are handling these cases as precursor crimes, and that's what makes us unique and different from everyone else," says Duffy. "It seems we have unsolved cases but the reality of it is, we don't. We have cases that are still open because we haven't made any arrests, but that's based on evidentiary issues but not on a lack of investigations."

That doesn't mean they don't have suspects. Since the high-profile cases of O.J. Simpson and others, the guidelines for probable cause and evidence have become so strict, Duffy and his investigators won't make arrests unless all the "I"s are dotted and "T"s are crossed.

And sometimes the press that high-profile cruelty cases get cause a hindrance.

"(In) the cases in which we think the suspect could be a threat to other people in that immediate community, we make sure (those cases) get in the press right away," says Duffy. "And sometimes we get criticized for that, because sometimes it screws up the investigation because the bad guys know we're looking."

Myers says that keeping the public informed is crucial.

"I think that what we have to do is concentrate on the fact that even if we don't get a conviction, at least the message you are sending out is that we're not going to tolerate these kinds of crimes," he says

Duffy doesn't see the cruelty problem going away anytime soon, noting since Sept. 11, he's seen a chilling change in attitudes--particularly among kids who feel we're all going to die anyway. Thinking it is one thing; acting it out is another.

"I think there's something going on in our society that we haven't seen the end of," notes Duffy.

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