Experts report upswing in cruelty cases


Montpelier, Vt.-As experts across the country declare a rise in animal cruelty, veterinarians and humane officials bolster the front lines fighting it.

Montpelier, Vt.-As experts across the country declare a rise inanimal cruelty, veterinarians and humane officials bolster the front linesfighting it.

In Vermont, state veterinary officials wading through a morass of animalabuse claims lobby to ease cruelty laws to lighten their load. At the Universityof Pennsylvania, investigative toiling by the college's cruelty-savvy DVMslands a New Jersey attorney in court on 34 counts of neglect. And in a Pennsylvaniaprison, a security guard recently rid a prisoner of contraband kittens byway of a trash compactor.

"And that's not even the worst of what's out there," says SamanthaMullen, a program coordinator with the Humane Society of the United States(HSUS) Mid-Atlantic office. "I believe we're hearing about more incidentsfor a combination reasons that include higher public awareness. Even so,I truly think we only know the tip of the iceberg of the cruelty that'sreally out there."

Experts estimate upsurge in abuse

Like Mullen, many in the business of fighting animal abuse say neglectfuland violent acts against animals appear on the rise, even though a nationalsystem for recording statistical data doesn't exist.

Experts suggest increased incidents of cruelty correlate with an upsurgein violence, especially among juveniles, but many aren't comfortable makingthat claim without the data to back it.

"Having grown up in New York, I attribute it to the 'too many ratsin the maze' theory," says Susan Asher, the Nevada Humane Society'sexecutive director. "People are moving closer together, the stressis getting greater so people's fuses are shorter.

"Everyone's riding on the edge, and unfortunately, violence andanger tends to flow downhill to smaller creatures, whether it be childrenor animals."

Mullen says the types and sheer volume of the calls she receives are"shocking."

"We hear reports of animal cruelty daily, I'd say more than everbefore," Mullen says. "It's simply an enormous problem."

Asher's office, which covers the Reno area, received 680 new abuse orneglect complaints in 2000. In analyzing those cases, she notes incidentsof violent cruelty by juveniles are up.

"Last year a child gouged the eyes out of a dog and was punishedto the full extent of the law," she says. "Most cases are yourbasic neglect and education issues, but there are cases where kids willbeat a cat over the head with a shovel and throw it in a Dumpster. We hadone like that."

Still, experts say they don't need statistics to know backyard neglectis by far the most reported form of cruelty and the type likely to be seenby veterinarians.

U of Penn. pins attorney

Last April, staff at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania(VHUP) spotted a neglect case commonly referred to as animal hoarding.

VHUP veterinarians and staff, trained to identify signs of neglect, suspectedabuse when long-time client John de Laurentis, an attorney, brought in severalpuppies for emergency care. Dehydrated and near death, records show thepuppies suffered from parvovirus, Campylobacter infection and intestinalparasites.

"These puppies were severely ill, and (de Laurentis) could haveprevented it," says Suzanne Weaver, associate hospital director. "WhenI looked up his records, I saw a pattern over the last four years concerningthe number of animals he brought into the facility and the severity of theirillnesses. The signs pointed to neglect and after talking with our doctors,I made a call to the (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)."

On Nov. 3, de Laurentis, 51, was found guilty on 36 counts of animalcruelty. He's ordered to pay $54,000 in restitution for the kennel careof many of the 34 dogs and eight puppies seized from his home. His undeterminedjail sentence was suspended on the condition he never own more than twodogs, complete 36 hours of community service and spend two years on probation.

Legal backlash

Now De Laurentis is appealing. When contacted by DVM Newsmagazine, heaccused VHUP staff of lying and being "arbitrary and capricious"in their animal cruelty reportings. A civil suit against the hospital hasbeen filed in New Jersey Superior Court.

"When they don't have enough facts, they simply fabricate them,"de Laurentis says. "This lawsuit alleges the hospital staff misrepresentedor embellished their information, I presume, with the best intentions. Itis all based on the conduct of their case."

Weaver responds, "We figured he would sue us. We decided it wasworth it."

Tunnel vision

Without drawing conclusions about the de Laurentis case, Eric Sakach,director of HSUS' West Coast office, says animal collectors aren't uncommon.In fact, he says, many spend every dime they earn on pet care.

De Laurentis spent more than $33,000 at VHUP during a 13-year period,records show.

"Frankly, I think collectors develop a type of tunnel vision,"Sakach says. "In most neglect cases, prosecution is a last resort."

But that doesn't mean the cases aren't serious, Mullen adds. "Animalhoarding is a tremendous source of animal suffering. These are people whomeant to take care of animals but didn't set limits and things got out ofhand."

Revamping the system

"Out of hand" is exactly how Vermont State Veterinarian ToddJohnson, DVM, describes the investigation system running from his office.

"So many allegations come through, we can't deal with them all,"he says. "The framework just isn't there to address these issues atthe local level, where many of these complaints belong."

In an attempt at system overhaul, Johnson and his colleagues have drafteda bill that, if sponsored and passed, allows local officials to enforcesome animal cruelty cases civilly instead of criminally.

"The whole civil enforcement idea is really popular," he adds."Instead of reporting everything to this office, law enforcement officerscan issue tickets or warnings to suspects if the cases are questionable.That way it doesn't bog us down or the court system."

Media hype?

But even if areas such as Vermont and Nevada are seeing a rise in animalcruelty, some experts downplay the surge.

In the Fort Worth, Texas region, Humane Society officials say the callshave remained constant, about 2,000 a year.

"Our records on the total number of calls we get and the numberof reports we respond to hasn't changed in the six years I've been here,"Operations Director Jamey Cantrell says. "I just think more peopleare noticing it and seeing that it's a bigger problem than what they believedbefore.

"After all, we just had a law change in Texas that makes some instancesof animal cruelty a state felony. More people are taking it seriously."

In New York City, officials also blame heightened public awareness onthe perceived animal cruelty upswing.

"We handle approximately 4,000 cases a year, and in the seven yearsI've been here, nothing's changed," Annemarie Lucas, a special investigatorwith the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' lawenforcement team. "Animal cruelty has always existed, public awarenesshas just brought more attention to it so people are calling it in now. Idon't have statistics to prove this; I just know that people are less tolerant."

But Sakach, based in Sacramento, Calif., says while the media has broughtcruelty to the forefront that doesn't mean more cases are being reported.They're just being heard.

"We get the news much more readily nowadays and events are coveredcoast-to-coast," he says. "But by and large, I suspect most casesare never reported and never find their way in to a national databank. Thenumbers are climbing around here, but tracking that is nearly impossiblewith so many agencies taking calls."

Recording the facts

Experts agree that lack of hardcore evidence or statistics on animalcruelty is at the root of most discrepancies.

"It would be nice to have a clearinghouse database to track allthis, but that hasn't been possible," Asher says. "Police maynot keep records of the calls they get and there's no linkage between thevarious humane law enforcement organizations to ascertain on a quantitativebasis."

But all that's changing. To shed light on the complex and disjointedreporting systems, HSUS has become the first organization to conduct a nationalstudy on animal cruelty. While the report, based on 2000 data, focuses onthe link between animal cruelty and human violence, other facts can be derivedfrom the numbers.

"We've been keeping track of these cases based on media reportsand information from our humane societies," says Virginia Prevas, managerfor The First Strike Campaign, an HSUS organization in Washington. "Rightnow we're tracking trends, and our report shows 57 percent of new reportscharacterized abuse from intention and extreme neglect. Thirty-one percentinvolved intentional abuse or torture and 12 percent included both forms."

The program's eventual goal is to gather national numbers for a morecomprehensive, state-by-state look at cruelty and its trends, Mullen says.

"This is the most progressive and proactive look at animal crueltyin the United States," she says. "We still have a ways to go,but at least this is a start."

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