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Those who batter, abuse or kill dogs and cats would get the same public scorn as sex offenders in bills introduced in legislatures throughout the U.S.
Online registries for convicted animal abusers already have been approved in three New York counties, including Suffolk, where the nation’s first takes effect May 7. Twenty-five states have considered such laws since 2010, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which is leading the campaign.
Backers say the bills recognize a growing awareness of animal rights -- and the public-safety benefits of stopping abusers, who studies show often go on to harm humans.
“There’s a mountain of evidence that says we need something like this,” said Michigan Representative Harvey Santana, a Detroit Democrat who’s proposed a registry there. “There is a strong correlation between people who abuse animals and graduate to abusing people.”
Other states where legislatures are considering similar bills include New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida and Maryland, according to the Cotati, California-based Legal Defense Fund.
The case of National Football League quarterback Michael Vick shows why the drive has momentum, said Stephen Wells, executive director of the fund, which says it has 100,000 members. Vick was sent to prison in 2007 on charges of conspiracy to break dog-fighting laws, not animal cruelty, Wells said.
“It’s frustrating to see repeat offenders commit these crimes and get away with it in people’s eyes,” said Wells, 47, in a telephone interview. “The registries appeal to people’s common sense.”
Public shame has a long history in the U.S., dating to the Puritans’ use of stocks to punish colonial criminals. Some cities have combated prostitution by publishing photos of their clients in newspapers and, in Minneapolis, on an electronic billboard.
The animal-abuse idea is an outgrowth of registries for sex offenders begun by states in 1996 under order of Congress. The initiative isn’t uniformly supported by animal-rights organizations.
Tracking abuse in FBI data would do more to prevent it, Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the U.S., wrote in a December 2010 blog post. Many people convicted of neglect are mentally ill, he said.
“Shaming them with a public Internet profile is unlikely to affect their future behavior,” Pacelle wrote, “except perhaps to isolate them further from society and promote increased distrust of authority figures trying to help them.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals supports registries, said Stephanie Bell, associate director of cruelty investigations.
“Community members have a right to know when a convicted animal abuser is in their midst,” Bell said. “People who abuse animals rarely do so only once.”
Suffolk County’s registry is administered by its Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Its head, Roy Gross, said studies show those who abuse animals often hurt people.
“If you had a convicted animal abuser next to you, wouldn’t you want to know?” he said.
A person who abuses or kills animals is five times more likely to commit violence against people and four times more likely to commit property crimes, according to a 1997 study by Northeastern University and the Massachusetts SPCA. Serial killers who abused or killed animals include Boston strangler Albert Desalvo, “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz and Carroll Edward Cole.
Gross said Suffolk County, with 1.5 million people in eastern Long Island, investigates about 3,000 animal-abuse cases a year. He estimated a dozen or so will be prosecuted.
Rockland and Albany counties in New York last year enacted similar registries.
Without national standards, communities will create a patchwork of laws, said Alison Gianotto, 36, president of Pet- Abuse.com, an international database of more than 19,000 cases. Abusers can move easily across jurisdictions to buy or adopt animals, foiling local or state registries, Gianotto said,
“Legislators want voters to feel good,” she said. “They just haven’t thought it out well enough.”
Michigan legislator Santana is working with Republican state Senator Rick Jones on the registry legislation. Santana said he’s received many e-mails from supporters in both parties.
“There are no Republican dogs or Democratic cats,” he said.
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