By Kim Herbert and Liz Holtz
After reviewing animal cruelty cases in the media for the last few months, our (very) unscientific study concluded that one out of three animal cruelty cases covered by local media outlets included a quote from a law enforcement officer or an animal shelter employee asserting that it was the worst case of animal cruelty they’ve ever seen. But the truth is that these cases barely scratch the surface of the countless instances of animal abuse that are never reported, investigated, or brought to trial.
News stories that include the quote “it was the worst I have ever seen” are troubling because the reality is that government officials (animal control, police or otherwise) see such a negligible fraction of animal abuse. Further, assigning extremes like “the worst” makes each case seem like it’s an outlier. It’s not. The blame isn’t on the officials making these statements. These officers are not lying or exaggerating. They are almost certainly speaking from the heart.
But the reality is that animal cruelty is massively underreported. Most cases that reported are not investigated. And most cases that are investigated are not prosecuted. The Animal Rescue League of Boston suggests that only one in five cases of animal abuse are reported. Anyone who has worked in animal protection, volunteered for a Trap-Neuter-Return group, or even fostered for a rescue group probably knows about a cruelty incident that the police declined to investigate.
People who care about animals know this needs to change. But every single person should care about prosecuting crimes against animals. Aside from the obvious reasons of protecting innocent animals, we now know that there is a concrete link between abuse of animals and violence against humans. Seventy six percent of animal abusers are also terrorizing a human family member, according to the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) now tracks animal cruelty data as an indicator of future violent crimes. The only way to reverse this trend is to report animal cruelty (even though you will likely be ignored) and pressure legislators, prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officials to take cruelty seriously.
Bystanders are often hesitant to report animal abuse. Sometimes they doubt that the abuse is legitimate. Far too often, witnesses assume that someone else will report the crime. Many communities are frustrated with a lack of response from law enforcement and do not see the value in reporting. But it’s still better to report suspected abuse than do nothing. Further, a report gains traction when multiple sources are calling it in; and law enforcement may well need a push from the community.
We also must pressure our own officials to put resources into investigating animal cruelty. A 2010 ASPCA study found that only 19% of law enforcement professionals have received formal animal cruelty training and a mere 30% know their jurisdiction’s animal cruelty penalties. The study proposes the top reasons why animal cruelty is under-investigated: such cases are not a priority for supervisors, there is a lack of training on how to handle animal cruelty cases, and the community has no facilities to keep animal victims seized from their abusers.
We have resources on our website so you can advocate for animal victims in your own community. Check out Increasing Prosecution of Animal Cruelty: Next Steps for Communities and Increasing Prosecution of Animal Cruelty: Talking Points as well as more background information about the link between violence against animals and violence against humans.
Please report any abuse you witness—including animal cruelty. National Link Coalition provides a state by state listing of agencies with which you can file a report.
Collection of 2017 News Stories about the “Worst” Animal Cruelty Cases:
Mississippi – Horse recovering after being sexually abused, mutilated
New York – DA Brown prosecuting dog abuse case
North Carolina – Exclusive look inside ‘chamber of horrors’ animal abuse case
North Carolina – Rescued, neglected pup faces long road to recovery
Pennsylvania – Humane Pennsylvania Seeks Action for Animal Abuse Case
Rhode Island – Westport farm tenants in court
West Virginia – More than 100 neglected animals removed from farm
Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Holtz is For All Animals’ director of legislative affairs. She is an animal rights attorney and lifelong animal advocate. Liz manages For All Animals’ coalition efforts to pass state laws that protect animals—like strengthening anti-cruelty laws—and defeating laws that harm animals—like ag-gag laws. She also oversees For All Animals’ Attorney at Paw program, which provides assistance to advocates interested in passing laws and ordinances that protect animals on a local level.
Cornell University: College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Candidate for Bachelor Science Degree in Animal Science, May 2018. Guardian to Phoebe, a Brittany Pointer, and Chester and Harley, two tuxedo cats.
“I am so excited to be interning at For All Animals because I want to become a more effective advocate for animals and help others to do the same!”