ANNAPOLIS-A Frederick County boy and girl last month microwaved two adult cats, one of them pregnant.
There have been bludgeoned pigs in North Carolina, skinned and decapitated felines in Seattle, a German shepherd puppy killed with a firecracker in Michigan. And just a couple weeks ago, two pit bull puppies were found, one neglected and left for dead in Silver Spring, another found dead in a Kensington dumpster.
Such acts of animal abuse often are indicators of more severe family abuse problems, experts say. Abuse, whether of animals, children or other people, is cyclic and related. Many agencies in Maryland have recognized this link and are joining forces to try to stop the violence.
When children abuse animals, many experts say it’s often a warning sign. Children beat animals to release pent-up aggression or imitate the abuse they experience or see at home, said Penny Misner, administrator at the Frederick County Department of Animal Control.
The Frederick County case is still under investigation, so it’s unknown whether other abuse played a part in the injuries to the cats. But many other cases in Maryland and elsewhere have proved a strong link between animal and child abuse.
“Animal abuse [is] family violence, part of the continuum of violence and part of the cycles of violence, which untreated keep escalating,” said Phil Arkow, writer and lecturer on animal, child abuse and domestic violence.
More than 70 percent of animal abusers committed at least one other criminal offense and almost 40 percent committed violent crimes against people, according to a 1997 study by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Northeastern University.
“We need to establish community coalitions,” Arkow said, to spot one kind of abuse in hopes of trying to prevent others. Baltimore is one place where authorities see the connection and are trying to alleviate the problem.
Animal control, child protective services and the police department are working together to improve communication, said Robert Anderson, director of the city animal control bureau.
Information needs to be shared faster, he said, and, to that end, a new computer system connecting the agencies is expected to be working by January. It takes five days to process and exchange reports, Anderson said, which “is too long if a kid’s life is involved.”
Baltimore police also are cross-training. Officers train animal control employees to be aware of abuse situations and the possible links. But the departments need to do even more, particularly in investigative training, Anderson said.
Animal control officers make great child abuse reporters, said Kim Roberts, executive director of Wicomico County Humane Society. They are accustomed to writing objective reports and observing non-verbal victims, she said. Control officers should “eyeball” everyone in the family and get inside the house where there may be victims hidden from view, Roberts said. “Family violence is all about keeping the secret,” Roberts said. Baltimore Police Col. Margaret Patten agrees. “Pet abuse is part of the domestic violence dynamic,” she said. Patten, research and development chief for the department, has worked closely with Anderson on the abuse link. “The problem with this is once you start looking, you don’t stop finding.” A 1997 survey of 50 of the largest U.S. battered women’s shelters found that more than 85 percent of women and 63 percent of children talked about pet abuse in the family. Many women delay leaving their batterer because they fear for their pets’ safety, said Jeanne Yeager, domestic violence coordinator for the Mid-Shore Council on Family Violence, which represents Kent, Dorchester, Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Caroline counties. Batterers often coerce their victims to stay in an abusive relationship by threatening their pets. Misner, in Frederick County, said she knows of a case where a woman left her husband and in retaliation, he mailed her their dog’s left ear. If she didn’t come back, he warned, he would mail her the dog’s head next. The woman had no choice, said Misner, but to go back to her husband. Victims are so fearful for their own and their families’ welfare that often they will end up testifying on behalf of their abuser. “(Domestic violence cases) are even more challenging than a homicide case because then the victim is dead and silent,” said Patten. More counties and agencies are providing services and housing animals for victims, Yeager said, a trend that will only help end more abusive situations. Prevention, though, is the true key to ending abuse, said Anderson. And prevention comes through communication and education. Humane education for children, he said, can help prevent youngsters from committing more horrible acts to animals – and humans. “It’s better to stop it before it starts than chase [a violent person] across the country after killing 20 people,” said Anderson. `The boys will be boys’ mentality is no longer accepted as an excuse for animal cruelty, said Misner.