The FBI is more serious than ever about tracking those who abuse innocent animals.
For the first time ever this year, the FBI will collect data on animal cruelty crimes via its National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). In doing so, the bureau has classified animal cruelty as a Group A felony, on par with homicide, arson and assault.
Law enforcement agencies will have four subgroups to choose from when reporting animal abuse to the FBI: simple/gross neglect, intentional abuse and torture, organized abuse (like dogfighting and cockfighting) and animal sexual abuse.
“There is overwhelming evidence that [animal abuse] is linked to crimes against people, including violent crimes and domestic violence.”
The FBI has defined animal cruelty as "Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly taking an action that mistreats or kills any animal without just cause, such as torturing, tormenting, mutilation, maiming, poisoning, or abandonment."
The policy, which went into effect on Jan. 1, has been years in the making, originating with animal welfare advocate Mary Lou Randour, who convinced the FBI in 2014 that tracking animal abuse was a worthy endeavor.
"These are creatures that suffer and we know their capacity to suffer,” Randour told the Washington Post earlier this week. “In most societies it’s recognized that creatures that are dependent on others, whether the elderly or children or animals, need to be protected.”
Not only is the new policy a shift towards treating animals more humanely, it could also help law enforcement take a bite out of human crime. As an FBI podcast from 2015 points out, many criminals abuse animals before they abuse people.
"There is overwhelming evidence that [animal abuse] is linked to crimes against people, including violent crimes and domestic violence,” Randour added. “It’s not about protecting people or animals, it’s protecting them both.”
It's important to note that this shift is more about tracking animal abuse than it is about prosecuting animal abusers. While some especially heinous crimes -- like those committed by the NFL star Michael Vick -- do make it to the federal system, the laws used to pursue abuse are unaffected by this latest shift.
Which is not to say that the change won't help. As the Humane Society of the United States CEO Wayne Pacelle pointed out in 2014, the data collected will offer "a real incentive for law enforcement agencies to pay closer attention to [animal abuse]," and will allow those agencies to better "allocate officers and financial resources to handle these cases, track trends and deploy accordingly."
Data collected in 2016 will be available for public review in 2017.
Also on HuffPost: