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Pet abuse can be indicator of problems

by Linda Hiller

Domestic abuse isn’t always just aimed at spouses and partners. In fact, it probably never has been, according to Chief Criminal Deputy City Attorney for the City of Reno, William Gardner.

“If you abuse your spouse, chances are you abuse your children and your animals, as well,” Gardner said Tuesday during a presentation in honor of October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Gardner and Victim Witness Advocate for the City of Reno, Lori Brown, spoke on “The Correlation between Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse” at the Family Support Council headquarters in Gardnerville.

Both Gardner and Brown said the nation’s court systems are becoming increasingly aware of pet abuse and/or neglect as a sign of other potential or underlying problems – perhaps domestic abuse of a partner or children – in a family.

“Batterers are careful about battering the children and the partner, because they can report the abuse, but with animals, you have a victim that can’t talk and file a complaint.” Gardner said. “Who’s going to call the police when Sparky’s getting beat up?”

A growing interest in animal law and the treatment of animals is spreading through the nation’s court systems, Gardner said.

“We have presented this talk to the state bar in Texas, and Harvard now has classes in animal law,” he said.

n Advocate’s perspective. Brown, whose job is to walk victims of crime through the court process, accompanying them to court and through the end of their cases, said many of these situations have involved pets.

“People are always asking ‘Why does the victim stay in that abusive relationship?’ and we find that domestic violence victims stay in relationships not only because of economics or children, but because of their pets, too,” she said. “And, we also see batterers using these pets as pawns.”

Gardner told of a case he’d been involved in with a family and their dog, who was a valued family pet.

“They had this tapestry on the wall with a dog that looked like their dog, and the batterer would shoot the tapestry as a threat every now and then,” Gardner said. “One day, he took the dog and his (young) son outside and shot the dog right in front of the boy, and you can imagine how devastated this boy was. I can tell you that it was a very powerful message he sent to his wife when he shot that dog. The message was ‘I’ll do anything to stay in control!'”

Gardner said the National Institute of Municipal Lawyers has released statements confirming a direct correlation between those who abuse their spouse and children and those who abuse the family pet.

“Animal abuse and cruelty is serious enough by itself, but we find that children raised in this kind of environment are usually more violent with other children, so there’s a correlation,” Gardner said. “We’re seeing some of this abuse now more with animals, and we think it’s not because it’s happening more, but because we’re recognizing it more.”

Gardner said the legal definition of domestic abuse in Nevada can be very broad, but defining it as the “ongoing, systematic use of violence and intimidation to control a relationship” is generally accepted.

n There’s a history. Many infamous criminals began their violent lives with animal victims, Gardner said. Serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz and Carrol Edward Cole all were documented abusing animals – from strangling and shooting neighborhood dogs and cats to torturing their own pets.

Many of the mass murderers responsible for recent school shootings can even be linked to animal cruelty, Gardner said. Kip Kinkel in Springfield, Ore.; Andrew Golden in Jonesboro, Ark.; Michael Carneal in West Paducah, Ken.; and Luke Woodham of Pearl, Miss. – all had histories of animal abuse ranging from blowing up a cow and shooting cats and dogs with a .22 rifle, to burning, torturing and killing the family dog.

“This just shows that there is a correlation between children who abuse animals and children who can turn violent against people,” Gardner said.

n Poor care is abuse, too. Neglect of family pets may indicate neglect of the people in a family, Gardner said.

“We find that often, when a family has repeated contact with animal control because their animals are running loose, feral or neglected, that can be a red flag leading us to a potential abuse or neglect situation,” he said.

Gardner said cases of animal abuse and neglect need to be reported and at least documented. Then, when the domestic violence situation reaches the courts, a paper trail of “red flags” can often be tracked.

n Preventative observing. Brown, who is a survivor of domestic abuse, said she encourages people to look at how a potential partner treats their pet as an indicator of how they’ll treat you.

“Look at how he treats his pets, and how he treats your pet,” she said. “I’ve had victims say, ‘He used to kick his dog, but I never thought he’d kick me.’ “

n What would help. For many victims of domestic abuse, one of the fears about leaving the relationship could be alleviated if family shelters had the capacity to take in pets, Brown said. Many shelters have no kennels – a situation that is slowly being amended across the country.

The City of Reno court system has a relationship with the Reno Humane Society, Gardner said, and confidentiality is honored when pets from domestic abuse cases are accommodated through this organization.

n Local efforts. Family Support Council is a little over half way toward their goal of raising funds for a local domestic abuse shelter. Staff members in attendance at Tuesday’s presentation said they would definitely want to include room for pets in the final Carson Valley shelter.

Rhonda Fingar, Douglas County Animal Control supervisor, said her department has limited space, but in the past has gone as far as farming out animals from domestic abuse households to members of the community.

“We have very limited space. If something happened today, we are full up,” Fingar said. “We had one case with a house way out in the Pine Nuts, and we brought out their animals – including horses – and found places for them in the community.”

Children who show abusive tendencies toward animals are considered at risk both from possible abuse in their own homes and toward other children and adults, especially if they are allowed to continue their abuse unchecked.

If you or anyone you know needs help or just wants more information, call the Family Support Council, 782-8692, the national hotline on domestic violence, (800) 799-7233, or animal control at 782-9061.