On March 14, 2014, South Dakota became the 50th state to enact a felony provision for animal cruelty. The law's enactment was a victory for animal welfare advocates and comports with other measures that Congress and state legislatures have recently taken to prevent animal cruelty. For example, animal fighting took center stage when reports surfaced regarding the alleged involvement of NFL free agent, Michael Vick, in an illegal dogfighting ring. Dogfighting is a felony in every state. Some states even punish possession of a fighting dog or attending a fight. Federal law provides for felony penalties arising from the interstate commerce, import, and export relating to commerce in fighting animals and paraphernalia. Several states also prohibit encouraging, enticing, assisting, or causing another person to perform any illegal activity related to dogfighting.
Although the enactment of new anti-cruelty measures in South Dakota is a step in the right direction, more remains to be done. Surprisingly, some states still do not expressly prohibit interspecies sexual assault. Likewise, in the 90s anti-cruelty investigators discovered a disturbing yet lucrative market in "crush videos," which depict live animals being slowly crushed to death. Recognizing the tremendous societal harm caused by the creation and sale of such depictions of animal cruelty, Congress enacted 18 U.S.C. §48 ("Section 48") -- a federal law criminalizing their creation, sale, or possession. Yet on April 20, 2010, the United States Supreme Court declared Section 48 to be unconstitutionally overbroad. The Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act of 2010, which was enacted on December 9, 2010, is tailored to address the Supreme Court's concerns. However, that law's constitutionality has already been challenged, and it remains to be seen whether it, too, will ultimately be deemed unconstitutional. Finally, despite the increasing problem of domestic violence-related animal abuse, many states still have not enacted legislation to expressly include companion animals in domestic violence protection orders.
These inadequacies in animal protection legislation are surprising when one considers that more than 60% of all American households have a pet -- nearly half of all households have more than one. (Beck, 2014). Pet owners commonly refer to their pets as "family," post pictures of them on social media, and spend significant amounts of money on treats, toys, food, vitamins, apparel, grooming, veterinary expenses, and even daycare. But whether you are an animal lover or not, measures to prevent, prosecute, and punish animal cruelty are just as beneficial to Man as to Man's best friend.
Animal cruelty offenses are often gateway crimes. According to Dr. Randall Lockwood of the ASPCA, dogfighting rings are frequently linked to gang activity and gambling. Dogfight raids often unearth drugs, weapons, and offenders with outstanding warrants. (Lockwood, 2014).
Participation in or viewing animal abuse could also arguably encourage a lack of respect for animals, erode public mores, and desensitize individuals to violence. (Kinsella, 2009). As Immanuel Kant observed, "cruelty to animals is contrary to man's duty to himself, because it deadens in him the feeling of sympathy for their sufferings, and thus a natural tendency that is very useful to morality in relation to other human beings is weakened." At least some evidence suggests that exposure to animal cruelty, whether in person or by viewing a film, may desensitize viewers to suffering and the resulting loss of empathy may facilitate or provoke violence against humans. (Perdue & Lockwood, 2014).
Given the indisputable link between the commission of animal abuse and violence against humans, prosecuting animal abusers could potentially prevent future crime. Studies have shown that animal abusers are significantly more likely to be involved in other serious criminal behavior and to have been arrested or convicted. (Chiesa, 2008; Ascione, 2001). According to Dr. Lockwood, a "10-year study of at-risk children showed that those who were classified at age 6-12 as cruel to animals were more than twice as likely as others in the study to be subsequently referred to juvenile authorities for a violent offense. Of those reported to be both cruel to animals and fire-setters, eighty-three percent had later involvement in violent offenses." Many serial killers, such as Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitz, had a history of abusing animals. (Chiesa, 2008).
Given this link, diligent prosecution and appropriate punishment for animal cruelty could prevent future crimes against humans. As anthropologist Margaret Mead opined, "one of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or torture an animal and get away with it." Animal cruelty may be the first serious offense for which a juvenile can be prosecuted, thus providing an opportunity to intervene at a pivotal stage in development that may prevent the juvenile from committing subsequent crimes against other animals and humans. Although animal cruelty may be symptomatic of psychological disturbance or conduct disorders that could lead to other crimes, some, but not all, states mandate psychological assessments of juveniles convicted of animal cruelty. (Ponder & Lockwood, 2006; Ascione & Lockwood, 2001).
Enacting legislation to encompass companion animals within protective orders is also important because animal cruelty is a particularly strong indicator of domestic violence. (Stecker, 2004; Ascione, 1996). According to the American Humane Association, "71% of pet-owning women entering women's shelters reported that their batterer had injured, maimed, killed or threatened family pets for revenge or to psychologically control victims." Abusers may also use pets and service animals as tools to perpetrate domestic violence, even forcing them to commit bestiality. (Quinlisk, 1999). Fear of pet abuse may also deter victims from escaping abusers. According to a 2004 study, 48% of abused women delayed leaving their abusers due to fear for their pet's safety. (Forell, 2008). In the presence of animal abuse, "the chance of domestic violence lethality generally increases." (Friedman & Norman, 2009). As such, prosecuting perpetrators of animal cruelty could perhaps simultaneously prevent or reduce incidents of domestic violence and animal abuse.
A strong correlation also exists between animal cruelty and child abuse. Studies demonstrate a link between child abuse and animal neglect, and the likelihood of animal abuse is much higher in families where child abuse is present. (Ascione, 2001). Anecdotal evidence supports this connection. For example, in Ohio, police responding to a complaint of animal cruelty discovered abused animals as well as two young children covered in feces and urine and locked in a bedroom. (Ponder & Lockwood, 2000). Furthermore, abusers may threaten to harm or kill pets to discourage children from reporting abuse. (Robbins, 2006; Crowell, 1999).
As Mahatma Gandhi once observed, "[t]he greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Growing awareness of the undeniable link between animal cruelty and violence against humans has spurred Congress and state legislatures to enact measures to prevent and punish animal cruelty. These laws reflect Americans' increasing recognition that animal abuse, although unacceptable in its own right, too often escalates into violence against humans. Thus, although anti-cruelty advocates won the battle in South Dakota, the war against animal cruelty is far from over, and it is one that we should all be willing to fight.