FBI’s new animal abuse database may also predict and prevent violent crime against people

Pit bull mix Bruno stands up in the holding cage at the Anti-Cruelty Society of Chicago, July 2, 2012. Bruno was seized after being found malnourished in Bellwood. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty Images)

Animal rights advocates are applauding the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s recently launched national database of animal abuse cases — the first of its kind in the U.S.

This month, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program added animal cruelty as a separate offense in its National Incident-Based Reporting System, where it had previously been filed under the catchall category of “other crime.”

Furthermore, cruelty toward animals has been upgraded to a “Group A offense,” like arson, and a “crime against society,” along with gambling and prostitution. It will be categorized in one of four subgroups: simple/gross neglect, intentional abuse and torture, organized abuse (dogfighting and cockfighting) and animal sexual abuse.

The bureau now officially defines “cruelty to animals” as follows:

“Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly taking an action that mistreats or kills any animal without just cause, such as torturing, tormenting, mutilation, maiming, poisoning, or abandonment. Included are instances of duty to provide care, e.g., shelter, food, water, care if sick or injured; transporting or confining an animal in a manner likely to cause injury or death; causing an animal to fight with another; inflicting excessive or repeated unnecessary pain or suffering, e.g., uses objects to beat or injure an animal. This definition does not include proper maintenance of animals for show or sport; use of animals for food, lawful hunting, fishing or trapping.”

Animal cruelty laws vary from state to state, and investigations are typically handled by local police departments, sheriffs' offices and animal control agencies, not the FBI. 

Experts in law enforcement, psychology and animal welfare say that not having national statistics on these incidents has long been a blind spot for the United States’ justice system — for animals and humans.

The exterior of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, the headquarters of the FBI, is seen Aug. 20, 2015, in Washington, D.C. The agency is looking for a new location for its headquarters. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“Once this plan is fully implemented and rolled out, that’s going to be a huge sea change for the world of animal protection and one of the most significant contributions in decades,” psychologist Randall Lockwood said in an interview with Yahoo News.

Lockwood, the senior vice president of anti-cruelty projects at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is a prominent figure in the fight against animal abuse. He serves as official adviser to the New York State Police on animal-related crimes and received a public service award from the U.S. attorney’s office for his role in the Michael Vick dogfighting case.

Over the past several decades, Lockwood has contributed to the mounting evidence of a strong connection between animal abuse and human violence. The mistreatment of animals is now seen as a “red flag” of a propensity for more serious future crimes.

“Often animal cruelty is an indicator crime that other issues may be going on within the same household: ongoing child abuse, elder abuse, domestic violence and so on,” Lockwood explained. “Animal cruelty can also be a predictor crime that those who are repeatedly involved in harming animals are at high risk of being involved in crimes against people.”

Those involved in petitioning the FBI to start tracking animal cruelty as a separate offense say the link was among the most persuasive arguments.

A bird is seen in a cage after law enforcement conducted a raid of a cock fight during a Humane Society animal rescue in Bennettsville, S.C., on March 28, 2015. (Chris Keane/AP Images for the Humane Society)

Phil Arkow, the coordinator of the National Link Coalition, an initiative to raise awareness of this “species-spanning interconnectedness,” argues that government, law enforcement and the general public have marginalized animal cruelty for far too long, reflecting a common view that animals deserve less consideration than human victims.

“As a result, animal abuse in its many forms has never been treated as seriously as it really deserves,” he said in an interview with Yahoo News.

However, Arkow continued, if animal abuse had been listed as a separate item on Uniform Crime Reports, which are used by thousands of law enforcement agencies nationwide, police officers would be more incentivized to look into these cases.

And there is reason to believe that uncovering instances of animal abuse would lead authorities to cases of mistreatment of humans. After all, it has in the past.

Right now, organizations working to address public policy cannot provide figures on animal abuse for legislators on the local, state or federal levels. Consequently, Arkow said, lawmakers do not understand the scope and significance of the problem.

Over the past 20 years, Lockwood said, the question he is asked most frequently by the media has been, “Is animal cruelty on the rise?” But he has had to resign himself to a rather unsatisfactory answer: “We really don’t know.” 

Following a tip from an earlier suspected dogfighting raid in Pamlico County, the Humane Society of the United States assisted the nearby Jones County Sheriff's Office in the raid of a second alleged dogfighting operation in Pollocksville, N.C. (Michelle Riley for the Humane Society of the United States)

Without a standardized national database, researchers have had to sift through information from local authorities at various levels of government who defined terms and tracked cases differently.

Psychologist Mary Lou Randour, the senior adviser of animal cruelty programs and training at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) said it has been difficult to retrieve information on animal cruelty from the FBI because of its previous classification under “other crimes.” “It’s like a dumping ground,” she said.

In response to this obstacle, AWI and the National Sheriffs Association submitted proposals to the FBI to start tracking animal cruelty as a separate offense.

“We went through many different stages and processes to get to the final good result of the FBI adopting this change,” Randour said to Yahoo News. “In this case, it’s a both/and proposition. You don’t have to choose animals or people. Both animals and people will be safer by understanding when violence starts, where it starts and how we can stop it.”

According to Lockwood, it could take five to 10 years of standardized reporting before there is enough data to reliably determine trends. But he thinks the FBI’s change this month marks perhaps the most important step in decades in protecting animals.

“Symbolically this is an important step because it shows that the FBI and the Justice Department recognize animal cruelty as a serious crime,” Lockwood said. “It’s no longer seen as a minor crime or something that can be ignored because we have more serious issues with crimes against people.”