WASHINGTON — For years, researchers have documented the link between cruelty toward animals and violence against humans - women, children, the elderly.
The basic argument: How people treat pets is an indicator of how they will - and do - treat people. Now groups around the country are beginning to use this link to help curb domestic violence in all its forms:
* In Broward County, Fla., the sheriff's department is the first in the country to address abuse of animals, children, the handicapped, and the elderly within the same division.
* In West Lafayette, Ind., the Purdue University veterinary school has set up its own foster-care program for pets, called PetSafe, and has advertised this service to women's shelters and other social-service agencies. Since the program started four years ago, about 40 animals have taken part, including dogs, cats, hamsters, and birds.
* In LaCrosse, Wis., social-service agencies, the police, animal rescue people, and church ministers are working together closely to report signs of trouble to one another.
"An abused pet can often be the first sign of trouble," says Ann Quinlisk, a domestic-violence activist in LaCrosse who several years ago organized a coordinated community response to the variety of forms violence can take. She pulled together "anyone whose fingers touch the victims," she says, and got them to think broadly about the "tangled web" of abuse.
One woman's tale
For Ms. Quinlisk, it all started on her first day of work at a women's shelter.
A client announced she had to go home. The reason: Her husband was torturing their dog, and the woman's mother had forwarded pictures from her husband to prove it. Law enforcement and animal control couldn't be trusted to protect the dog. "So yeah, I guess I might have gone home, too," says Quinlisk.
Now, she explains, if a social worker enters a home to check on children, he or she is encouraged also to note the condition of any pets, and vice versa.
"We don't expect humane society workers to go in and go, 'You're abusing your children, I'm taking them with me,' " says Quinlisk, in Washington for a conference of the Humane Society of the United States examining the link between animal cruelty and violence against people.
"You can't do that. But you can look for some of the signs, then hook up with someone you know at another agency."
Quinlisk says her community, too, has worked out a foster-care system for pets who are in abusive homes. If a woman flees to a shelter, either a local veterinarian or a shelter worker will take the pet for a period.
In research released yesterday, the Humane Society found that almost 30 percent of animal-cruelty incidents also involved violence against people. It's difficult to prove that violence against animals is increasing, because the majority of cases don't result in prosecution or press coverage. The Humane Society's data come from a survey of press reports nationwide.
Some argue that when a child tortures animals it may be a sign of serious emotional trouble - and could lead to crimes against humans in later years. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, almost all serial killers abused animals as children.
Carrying the link too far
Still, some law enforcement officials say that putting greater emphasis on animal abuse is impractical, given all the other crimes they have to handle. And the public doesn't always support legal action against perpetrators.
In Fairfield, Iowa, a recent massacre of cats at a shelter, allegedly by three 18-year-old boys, has ignited an uproar over what to do. Some residents want the teens sent to prison. Others find that a gross overreaction that will ruin these kids' lives.
"We oppose the boys-will-be-boys attitude," says Randall Lockwood, a Humane Society expert on the animal-human violence link. "But we also don't think prison is the automatic answer."
Need for better laws
"There's no textbook method for handling animal abuse," Mr. Lockwood adds, noting that most animal abusers are young males who feel a need to exert power over another creature. "Each case is different in terms of the severity of the case, the contributing factors, the degree of remorse the perpetrators have. But at the very least these kids do need to be evaluated, and there needs to be family counseling. And that's just a start. They clearly should be taken seriously as a significant warning sign."
Lockwood also says that laws need to reflect better the seriousness of the crime. Animal abuse carries felony-level penalties in 18 states, but even then, convictions are rare.
Of the several hundred cases of animal cruelty Lockwood has reviewed, about 15 percent were adjudicated. Of those, only one resulted in mandatory counseling. Only one state, Michigan, requires mandatory counseling in cases involving animal abuse.