Animal abuse: What practitioners need to know

August 1, 2006
John Lofflin

John Lofflin is Veterinary Economics Special Assignments Editor, a journalism professor, and a freelance writer based in Parkville, Missouri.

One yellow tabby named Darwin will not soon be forgotten by anyone who knows his story. In April 2004, this 9-lb cat was presented DOA to Brooklyn, N.Y., emergency veterinarian Brett Levitzke. Dr. Levitzke knew immediately that Darwin had died as a result of trauma. "I took the woman who brought Darwin in aside and asked her what had happened," he says. "She said her daughter's fiancé had beaten the cat. I told her that I take this very seriously and that I would get law enforcement involved. She said, 'OK, I want this guy prosecuted.'"

One yellow tabby named Darwin will not soon be forgotten by anyone who knows his story. In April 2004, this 9-lb cat was presented DOA to Brooklyn, N.Y., emergency veterinarian Brett Levitzke. Dr. Levitzke knew immediately that Darwin had died as a result of trauma. "I took the woman who brought Darwin in aside and asked her what had happened," he says. "She said her daughter's fiancé had beaten the cat. I told her that I take this very seriously and that I would get law enforcement involved. She said, 'OK, I want this guy prosecuted.'"

Joseph Pentangelo was the arresting officer in Darwin's case. Pentangelo, who retired from the New York City Police Department in 2001, is a special agent for Humane Law Enforcement at the ASPCA in New York City.

According to news accounts, 35-year-old James Whalen had left a telephone message for his fiancée at work, saying he had beaten her cat and the cat was dead. His fiancée called her mother; her mother went to the apartment, picked up the cat, and took it to Dr. Levitzke at the Brooklyn Veterinary Emergency Service in Bay Ridge. There, Dr. Levitzke made careful notes documenting the cat's injuries. He then called the ASPCA.

Special Agent Joe Pentangelo took up the investigation and was the arresting officer in the case. Pentangelo had retired from the New York City Police Department in 2001, where he had served as a Mounted Unit police officer and a detective, worked missing persons, and handled press duties.

Pentangelo recalls his first conversation with Whalen: "I said, 'James, I'm here to talk to you about what happened to Darwin.' He just says, 'Oh yeah.' So I Mirandized him." According to Pentangelo, Whalen said he was holding the cat when it bit him. Whalen then grabbed Darwin by the hind legs or the tail and swung the cat several times like a sledgehammer. The cat's head hit the floor with each swing.

"In situations like that, I try to remain as dispassionate as possible," says Pentangelo. "I said, 'Would you write that down for me?' and Whalen wrote it down. I said, 'Do you realize the cat is dead?' He says, 'Oh yeah.' I waited for lab results—blood work, tissue analysis, urinalysis—to confirm that trauma was the cause of death. Once I was satisfied Whalen was responsible, I arrested him and locked him up."

Pentangelo was pleased the Kings County district attorney chose a felony charge in the case, testing Brooklyn's new animal cruelty law. The law specifies that the animal must be considered a companion animal, the abuse must result in serious injury or death, and the abuse must be of sufficient duration to qualify as torture. A single killing blow does not rise to that standard, Pentangelo explains.

"With a misdemeanor, the perp is much more likely to get 10 hours of community service," he says. "Now I can point to cases where people did more than a year. The law is not abstract anymore."

Whalen was convicted of aggravated animal cruelty, a class E felony in New York, and Dr. Levitzke was on hand to testify. "I told the district attorney, 'You name the time and the place and I'll be there,'" Dr. Levitzke says. "Based on the injuries I found and the story Whalen told the investigators, it was enough to make you sick and very angry."

But according to news accounts, Whalen was not sentenced to jail time for killing Darwin. He was sentenced to alcohol abuse classes, anger management classes, and five years' probation. "As part of the probation," says Pentangelo, "Whalen is prohibited from contact with any animal for five years."

Although Pentangelo sees many cases of animal abuse, what he doesn't see are many cases in which veterinarians are involved. He's not sure why; probably, he says, because abused animals aren't presented that often to veterinarians. And he says he understands why veterinarians might be reluctant to get involved with the legal system. "They will wind up being subpoenaed," he says. "If you're in a solo practice, what are you going to do?" He thinks that the more veterinarians know about animal abuse, the more likely they will identify it and report it.

Pentangelo remembers another case he handled at the ASPCA. A woman had starved her dog, a dog that lived in a milk crate lined with its own feces. When she was arrested, she said, "I can't believe all this trouble over a dog."

We owe it to the animals

Veterinarians, who make their livings and draw their joys from the bright side of the human-animal bond, need to also be aware of what Andrew N. Rowan, PhD, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, calls "the dark side" of the relationship between people and animals—the side Joe Pentangelo and Dr. Brett Levitzke see all too often.

"We must be careful," Rowan has written in an editorial, "to not let ourselves become so caught up by the rosy side of human-animal attachments that we ignore the other side."1

Dr. Rowan, who edited the Delta Society's Anthrozoös from 1986 to 1996, was primarily addressing the research community in that editorial, but his words apply to companion-animal practitioners as well.

So why should the community of veterinary practitioners step out of their comfort zones and confront animal abuse? Colorado State University bioethicist Bernard E. Rollin, PhD, answers: Why should a pediatrician care about child abuse? A pediatrician's primary role, he says, is to care for children, so a veterinarian's primary role is to care for animals.2 "Veterinarians should care about animal abuse," Rollin says, "simply because they owe it to animals."

Rollin's analogy to children touches on the heart of how society's concept of companion animals has changed in the last century. A 2001 American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) survey of 1,225 pet owners who used AAHA hospitals reported that 84% of respondents refer to themselves as the mother or father of their pets.3

Central to this change in attitude about animals was the belated recognition that animals are capable of feeling pain and that their pain is qualitatively similar to human pain. It is a relatively short step from recognizing animal pain to acknowledging that animals are abused, and, finally, to accepting the ethical responsibility to become involved when pain is inflicted on purpose for no legitimate reason.

Rollin has also been in the forefront of drafting legislation to limit pain in laboratory animals and is an advocate for pain control in animals in confinement agriculture. In both areas, he says, modern business imperatives have trumped the ethics of husbandry extending back to antiquity. In 1985, Rollin and three colleagues from Colorado State University drafted amendments to the Animal Welfare Act considered groundbreaking in establishing the concept of animal pain and suffering.

Dr. Levitzke says he is beyond tolerance where abuse is concerned. The very day he was asked to recall how he felt when Darwin was presented on his examination table, he had just obtained radiographs of a puppy he thinks was strangled by the boyfriend of the woman who brought the puppy in. And the day before he had treated a 2-year-old indoor-only Yorkie with such severe skull and jaw fractures that his best guess is that the injuries could only have been caused by a door being slammed on the dog's head. Without hesitation, he called the ASPCA animal investigators in both cases.

"Those animals have nobody to stick up for them," Dr. Levitzke says. "As veterinarians, we are their last resort."

The tie to interpersonal violence

Another reason veterinarians should confront animal abuse: Researchers have identified a correlation between animal abuse and interpersonal violence. Some researchers think veterinarians may be the first to see signs of interpersonal violence when they examine animal patients.

The research correlating animal abuse and interpersonal violence has been slow in coming, but its case is building.4-9 "Veterinarians today are where pediatricians were 50 years ago—before Kempe and the battered child syndrome" says Randall Lockwood, PhD, senior vice president, Anti-Cruelty Initiatives and Training, ASPCA, and one of the key researchers examining links between animal abuse and human abuse (see boxed text "Parallel paths: Society awakens to the abuse of children and animals"). Only a handful of studies have been done, but the findings are compelling.

Parallel paths: Society awakens to the abuse of children and animals

Frank R. Ascione, PhD, professor of psychology at Utah State University, dates the first writing in psychology about animal abuse and human violence with its earliest thinkers—Phillippe Pinel in the early 1800s and Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s—but says the landmark paper on the subject, published in 1971, was a series of case studies of children referred to clinicians for animal abuse and other problems.4 And Steven Kellert, PhD, and Alan P. Felthous, MD, he says, broke significant ground in the mid-1980s with their studies of incarcerated men,5 "establishing pretty clear indications that individuals incarcerated for violent crimes against people admitted to engaging in a lot of animal abuse."

Much of the research, like Kellert and Felthous' studies, has focused on captive populations of violent offenders or on battered women. In addition, researchers have probed for correlations between domestic violence and children who are cruel to animals.5

A study based on interviews of 92 mothers between 1996 and 2000 suggests that children who witness domestic violence are nearly three times more likely to participate in animal abuse than are children who are not witnesses.6 The mothers were from 47 families with a history of domestic violence and 45 families without.

In Ascione's oft-cited 1997 survey of one large domestic violence agency in every state, more than 80% of the shelter directors reported that women sometimes talked about their abusers also abusing animals in the household, and 60% reported that the women's children talked about witnessing animal abuse.8 Those numbers are probably more surprising because only one of every three shelters included a question about animal abuse as part of its intake inventory or other formal communication. In other words, these women and children were often volunteering information about abuse of their pets without prompts.

"This confirmed my suspicion that pet abuse was another form of family violence to which children might be exposed," Ascione writes. "The most basic question I had—how often do women who are battered report that pets are threatened or abused?—did not, at that time, have an answer."9

In more recent studies, researchers have interviewed more than 700 women who were victims of intimate partner violence about animal abuse in their homes. In these studies, Ascione reports, 11.8% to 39.4% of the women interviewed acknowledged threats to their animals.9 "More disturbing are the data on actual harm or the killing of pets," Ascione writes, noting that these studies also show that one in four to more than three in four women reported that her abuser made good on a threat resulting in either actual harm or the death of a pet (see boxed text "When their pets are safe, battered women are likelier to seek shelter").9

When their pets are safe, battered women are likelier to seek shelter

"We now know that animal abuse is associated with interpersonal violence," Ascione says. "And we know that children who are exposed to domestic violence are more likely to commit animal abuse."

Ascione thinks the first step in confronting the tie between animal abuse and interpersonal violence begins with all veterinarians identifying themselves as healthcare professionals who deal with human health as well as animal health. Veterinarians already act in this way, for example, when they suggest which pets are best for which people and when they help clients work through grief after the loss of a pet. "Veterinarians are already involved in these human health issues," he says.

"This doesn't mean we have to train veterinarians to be police officers or social workers," he adds. "But the best advice I can give a veterinarian is to find out who in the community oversees child welfare issues, who is in charge of domestic violence issues, who runs the women's shelters, and who investigates animal abuse. Just getting connected in the community is a good initial move."

The prevalence of animal abuse

Gary Patronek, VMD, PhD, clinical assistant professor of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University, was one of the first researchers to wonder about the reporting of animal mistreatment cases by veterinarians. His 1997 survey of complaints of animal abuse in Massachusetts and experiences of Massachusetts veterinarians turned up two particularly interesting results—while 78.9% of veterinarians surveyed reported seeing at least one case of animal abuse, just a handful, 16.4%, thought they had seen as many as five cases in their careers.10

Such a low frequency of reports of multiple cases could signal a low frequency of animal abuse, although the same study also stated that nearly 5,000 complaints of animal mistreatment were reported in 1996 in Massachusetts; of these cases, 37% were found to be violations of the law.10

Another reason for the low frequency of reports from veterinarians seeing multiple cases may be that most abused animals aren't presented to veterinarians for examination. Abused children usually must go someplace where they interact with others, including schools, pediatricians' offices, and hospital emergency rooms, but an animal abuser is probably less likely to bring a pet to a veterinarian.

However, the research results are mixed on the prevalence of animal abuse. For example, one researcher reported that 87% of 15 veterinary practices surveyed in Indiana indicated that they had treated mildly abused animal patients, and 50% said that they had treated one to three mildly abused animals a year.11 The number of cases of animal abuse seen likely varies widely by practice, says Dr. Patronek.

Lockwood cites the ASPCA caseload for New York City, which shows 44 arrests for animal cruelty in the first four months of 2006 compared with 72 arrests for all of 2005. "If that holds," he says, "we will have over an 80% increase in arrests. We dealt with 4,150 reports last year and 1,400 in the first four months of this year, so that suggests only a slight rise in calls, but more of these calls involve serious cases that result in arrest."

Findings that point to abuse

Seeing an abused animal and recognizing abuse are two different things. Melinda D. Merck, DVM, a Roswell, Ga., small-animal practitioner, doubles as an animal abuse forensics expert. She has served as an expert witness; has coauthored the book Forensic Investigation of Animal Cruelty: A Guide for Veterinary and Law Enforcement Professionals, which is due out shortly from the Humane Society Press; and has created and maintained a Web site on animal forensics,

"You have to be able to wrap your mind around the possibility of abuse," Dr. Merck says. "For example, nobody wants to think of sexual assault of an animal, but it happens. This is no longer happy medicine."

Dr. Merck trained herself by reading textbooks on human forensics. She has watched Georgia's medical examiner perform autopsies of murder victims. The similarities between human forensics and animal forensics are strong, she says. She learned about gunshot trajectory, blood splatter, and forensic entomology.

In ordinary practice, veterinarians have little need for this type of expertise, but they do need to know more than they were taught in veterinary school. "Veterinarians have zero preparation to do forensics," she says. "That's one reason they don't want to take these cases on."

In fact, veterinarians have only a smattering of training specifically in recognizing animal abuse. In a study of 31 veterinary colleges, nearly all respondents thought veterinarians would eventually encounter animal abuse in their careers, and three out of four schools said they address the issue in the curriculum.11 But only one in three had a hospital policy for reporting suspected abuse, and only 17% made students explicitly aware of the policy. And, the study showed, students spent an average of only 76 minutes on animal abuse across the curriculum and only eight minutes on the possibility that a client may be abused.

What should a veterinarian look for in the examination room? Dr. Merck says much of the investigation is common sense. "Know your species, know what they normally do," she says. "A lot of it is what we do in the exam room anyway. Pull all the clues together."

Asking the right questions

According to Dr. Merck, when taking a history and evaluating a patient be suspicious of abuse when

  • The history or the environment doesn't match the signs or the physical examination findings don't correspond to the injuries identified

  • The client changes his or her story

  • The client has inappropriate reactions (e.g. lack of concern) to the animal's condition or your questions

  • The client has delayed seeking veterinary treatment.12

Lila Miller, DVM, vice president, and Stephen L. Zawistowski, PhD, senior vice president, ASPCA Animal Sciences, suggest additional questions to ask in taking the history13 :

  • What is the condition of other animals in the household?

  • Has a veterinarian ever treated this animal for similar injuries?

  • Has the animal ever been presented to the local shelter before and why?

  • Are there any known toxins in the surrounding area?

  • Do strangers, including children, have access to the animal?

Dr. Patronek adds a question veterinarians might ask to open the door for discussion of domestic violence: Is there any member of the family who feels unsafe in the house? He admits, however, that initiating such a discussion is probably more difficult socially than it seems. He thinks veterinarians could use some coaching on how to turn suspicions about animal abuse into discussions that might reveal intimate partner violence or child abuse. Health professionals working with domestic violence prevention groups could likely offer such advice.

Dr. Levitzke isn't uncomfortable bringing up suspected animal abuse with clients. He says he goes on gut feeling when presented with a case he thinks might be abuse. And he always errs on the side of caution—caution for the animal's welfare.

He is not, he says, reluctant to ask difficult questions about how an animal sustained an injury. "If they're telling the truth about the injury, I figure they will appreciate the fact that I asked and that I care about their animals," he says. "If they're lying, then so be it."

In the case of the Yorkie with severe fractures, Dr. Levitzke pulled the owner aside and began asking questions "in baby steps." Until he knew more, Dr. Levitzke hoped to not alienate the client who had brought the animal to a caregiver. In particular, he didn't want the owner to remove the animal from the hospital before the police arrived. First, Dr. Levitzke asked for the owner's side of the story. "The owner seemed caring and he said he was unsure of what happened," Dr. Levitzke says. "So I tried to offer potential scenarios—maybe one of the children accidentally slammed the dog's head in a door. The owner denied having any knowledge over and over again. Now the interrogation will be done by the police."

Examination findings

"The biggest physical sign that should raise suspicions is blunt force injury," Dr. Merck says. "Be especially suspicious of those that result in fractures in an animal that is in a contained or protected environment.

"The injuries that are warning signals in children are similar to those in animals. The most diagnostic finding is multiple injuries in different stages of healing, indicating repetitive injury over a period of time."

See Table 1 for a listing of signs of animal abuse adapted from both Ontario Veterinary College's and the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Hospital's policies for reporting suspected abuse. The University of Pennsylvania's policy says that abuse or neglect can be by omission or commission or because animals are being used in staged fights. The policy states: "Often a determination of suspected animal abuse or neglect is an educated guess and may be based on a pattern of activity over time involving specific clients."14

Table 1 Clinical Signs of Animal Abuse*

Dr. Miller adds that animals with behavior problems (e.g. excessive barking, disobedience, destructive behavior, inappropriate elimination) are at a higher risk for abuse.

What to do if you suspect abuse

From a practitioner's perspective, Dr. Merck recognizes two potential stumbling blocks to reporting animal abuse: Veterinarians may be afraid of retribution, and they may be afraid of losing clients. But Dr. Merck says, "I've never heard of retribution. In a case that goes to trial, whether you're an expert witness or the reporting veterinarian, many people are involved in the case—the prosecutor, the judge, the detective who put the handcuffs on. So you're not going to be the only target they could focus on.

"And, if you're worried about the client getting upset," she says, "well, I don't mind losing the client who committed the cruelty or who stays with the abuser. My job is to protect the animal in that home."

Dr. Merck doesn't want to be nagged by a case she didn't pursue. "The victims are mute, and we are their only advocates," she says. "Without us, there will never be justice and the violence will continue absolutely."

Rollin is especially critical of veterinarians' fear of losing clients if they report animal abuse. He uses the voice of Socrates to argue his case. In The Republic, Plato has Socrates asking questions about justice and injustice. Plato, Rollin points out, makes a critical distinction between the art of healing and payment for the art of healing by focusing on the role of the shepherd: "Plato says, what you earn from caring for the sheep is your role as a wage-earner," Rollin explains. "But Plato points out, your primary function as a shepherd is the care of the sheep."

Before you encounter a case of suspected abuse, you should identify and become acquainted with the appropriate authorities in your area, says Dr. Patronek. All states have laws against animal abuse, but investigative authorities range from a local humane society or Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) with police powers to a municipal animal control office, which is often based within the police department (Table 2). In some communities, enforcement may lie with the local police, sheriff, or municipal animal control. Dr. Patronek recommends developing a working relationship with the executive director, board president, administrator, or chief investigative officer of the appropriate investigative authority to better understand how to approach a case of animal abuse, what options are available for intervention, and what will be expected of you as the case progresses.

Table 2 Be Prepared to Report Animal Abuse

Remember, says Dr. Patronek, if you think you see a case of animal abuse, all you need to do is report your suspicions. It is up to the investigator to determine whether these suspicions are verifiable. Veterinarians sometimes think they must be able to establish abuse. But to make a good faith report, they only need a reasonable suspicion. Finding the definitive proof is the job of the investigator, the prosecutor, and the courts.

Dr. Miller agrees: "Veterinarians are asked to report suspicions of abuse, which prompts an investigation to uncover the facts of the case. Some veterinarians are afraid to report because they don't know for a fact the animal has been abused. You don't have to be certain, you just need good faith suspicions. A good faith report is unlikely to create a serious liability problem."

The mechanism for reporting, whether a call or a written report, may vary with the agency, says Dr. Patronek. Anonymous reports are generally much less helpful to investigators, who may later need additional information, than are confidential reports, in which a call is made to a specific investigator with the understanding that the reporter's name is not to be divulged. Once a confidential report is made, the investigator should have no need to divulge the source of the report during the investigation. However, should the case come to trial, the reporting veterinarian could be asked to testify.

Should you decide to report a suspected case of abuse, you must carefully document the injuries as well as other circumstances surrounding the case. Dr. Miller and Zawistowski recommend saving everything—"bits of soil found on the paws, hair with traces of oil or grease, or bits of paint and metal removed from the skin of an animal who was hit by a car...leash, collar, ID tags."13 Include details about the animal—species, breed, age, weight, color, tattoos, ear cropping, tail docking, whether an animal is polydactyl, declawing, dehorning, different color eyes. Note environmental factors—the weather; access to adequate and nutritious food and water, shelter, and shade; cleanliness of the surroundings; and any odors.13 Photographs may be invaluable evidence. Also document who delivered the animal, the precise time and place, and the names of anyone who might have had access to the animal.13

Dr. Miller also advises all veterinarians working on cruelty cases to work closely with the police and investigators to preserve the evidence and safeguard against accusations of tampering and improper handling.

Is reporting always the best course of action?

Dr. Patronek worries that focusing on reporting abuse, and particularly on proving abuse in court, may actually discourage veterinarians from getting involved or may alienate clients who could be helped. "Who we serve, the client or the pet, is not an easy thing to answer sometimes," he says. "Abused animals that are brought to you are probably being somewhat cared for. I wouldn't want to alienate these clients because at least they are bringing the animals to you. In some cases, you might be in a position to do a lot more by taking the counselor-and-educator approach."

Neglect (e.g. lack of exercise or socialization) and harsh training methods are likely much more common than deliberate abuse, says Dr. Patronek. In cases in which the abuse isn't willful, the owners may be more amenable to counseling and education.

Dr. Patronek thinks that veterinarians can also serve as a force in the community, educating community leaders, defining neglect, and working for better laws. Rollin sees defining the more subtle areas of distress and neglect as a next step for veterinarians to create better societal expectations for animals. What a community will tolerate in the treatment of its animals defines the community, Rollin says.2

When he lectures worldwide, Lockwood finds veterinarians enthusiastic about learning the latest research on animal abuse. "One of the most common responses I get when I lecture," he says, "comes from the veterinarians who share stories that nag at them now, where now that they see things in a different light they know they would have done things differently."

Additional resources on animal abuse and reporting

The evolving law of animal abuse

Laws regarding animal abuse vary from state to state. Ambiguity about what constitutes abuse is one of the problems in animal cruelty law, according to Lockwood, who says cruelty and even animal are defined differently across states. One of his charges in his new position as the ASPCA's senior vice president for Anti-Cruelty Initiatives and Training is to foster standardization of these terms nationwide.

"The term [cruelty to animals] is used generically to describe a broad range of mistreatment, from a temporary lapse in providing proper care to malicious torture or killing of an animal," says Lockwood.15 Exemptions from cruelty laws further complicate the landscape, he says, citing an Alabama law allowing for "shooting a dog or cat with a BB gun for defecating/urinating on property" and Indiana's exemption for "discipline."15

Further addressing veterinarians' concerns that abuse or cruelty is not well-defined, Dr. Miller emphasizes that statutes define cruelty and trials determine guilt, not veterinarians.

Lockwood sees seven broad categories emerging in animal abuse legislation15 :

  • Simple neglect

  • Gross, willful, cruel, or malicious neglect, such as intentionally withholding food from an animal

  • Animal hoarding

  • Intentional abuse and torture

  • Organized abuse such as dog fighting

  • Ritual abuse

  • Sexual abuse

Generally, laws regarding animal abuse are moving in three directions: toward requirements to report animal abuse; toward immunity for veterinarians who, in good faith, report abuse; and toward establishing and stiffening penalties for animal abuse, including making some offenses felonies. Charlotte Lacroix, DVM, JD, president of Veterinary Business Advisors Inc., thinks two groups in society are driving the evolution of animal abuse law: groups responsive to the possible connection between animal abuse and human abuse and animal protection groups who argue that animals are sentient beings that feel pain and should be treated humanely.

Whether veterinarians are required to report abuse or are immune from damages if they are wrong, Dr. Lacroix, who lectures frequently on veterinary medicine and the law, says veterinarians have an ethical responsibility to report. "Veterinarians should do it because it is the right thing to do," she says.

As of August 2004, 11 states offered some form of immunity for reporting animal abuse, while eight states required veterinarians to report their suspicions about animal abuse (Table 3).16

Table 3 States in Which Veterinarians Must Report Animal Abuse*

Lockwood sees some positive legal trends. The April 2006 Humane Society of the United States accounting of anti-cruelty laws lists animal abuse provisions in all 50 states—43 of which make some form of cruelty a felony. That's an increase from the 31 states in 2000, he says, and only five states in 1990.17

Possible fines for animal abuse range from $1,000 to $5,000 in several states to $20,000 in California, $50,000 in Illinois, $100,000 in Colorado and Oregon, and $150,000 in Arizona. Possible jail sentences are as long as 10 years in Alabama and Louisiana. Alaska reserves the right to prohibit ownership of animals for up to 10 years. Courts may require counseling or anger management programs in 16 states; these programs are mandatory in 12 states.18

"The increase in potential fines and jail time in serious animal abuse cases has also raised the standards of evidence needed in the prosecution of these cases," Lockwood says. "For this reason, it is crucial to develop and refine veterinary forensic techniques for identifying and describing the injuries and illnesses that result from abuse and neglect."

Meanwhile, other areas of the law are also evolving. Maine Gov. John Baldacci signed a bill into law March 1 allowing animals to be included in protection orders in domestic violence cases. The Maine law is probably the first regulation of its kind in the nation.19 Lockwood says a similar law has been passed in Vermont.

The New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association, Dr. Lacroix says, has introduced a complete overhaul of that state's animal abuse laws in the state legislature. Although some think New York's tougher felony abuse law—as well as others in the new wave of laws bringing some kinds of abuse up to the felony level—is a step in the right direction, she points out that other activists think the New York law is only a small step.

New York's felony animal abuse law allows judges to sentence abusers to two years in jail. James Whalen, however, didn't lose his freedom, though he did lose his fiancée. "It bothered me that he didn't go to jail," Dr. Levitzke, the emergency veterinarian, says. "And it bothered the prosecuting attorney as well. I spoke to the district attorney in Brooklyn about it, I was so upset. She told me that for five years this guy has to walk the straight and narrow on probation and that a guy like that can't. I hope he makes even a minor misstep and gets the jail time he deserves."

John Lofflin is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Missouri.


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