Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : April 2007


 Bar Bulletin Focus

Animal Law   

Animal Cruelty and Domestic Violence: Two Forms of the Same Crime

John Jefferson pleaded guilty in a Brooklyn courthouse to robbery, burglary, stalking, criminal contempt and animal cruelty. Jefferson, who had been stalking his ex-girlfriend Eugenia Miller, hurled Rigby, Miller’s 16-year-old terrier poodle mix from her balcony. State Supreme Court Justice James Yates sentenced Jefferson to 12 years in prison; the judge said that two were for Rigby.

This anecdote illustrates at least two important points: domestic violence and animal cruelty are often merely different forms of the same crime – family violence – and the investigation and prosecution of animal cruelty crimes add power to any prosecutor’s punch. John Jefferson was a batterer; animal cruelty crimes also have been a factor in a number of criminal convictions for child sexual abuse. Courts in Maine and Idaho affirmed child sex abuse convictions, noting the defendant had threatened, as well as actually killed, animals in front of the child victim.

The overlap of animal abuse with other forms of family violence – as well as crime in general – has been well-established by a 30-year-old (and growing) body of research literature in the social sciences. State and national surveys of domestic violence victims consistently find that up to 71 percent of battered women report that their male partners had threatened to or had, in fact, harmed or killed their pets. A recent study provided convincing confirmation of this important link. Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell and her colleagues at The Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health wanted to know what characteristics of a person could predict whether they would become a batterer. Their study, published in the Journal of Community Health in 2005, involved thousands of women, in 11 metropolitan areas over a seven-year period of time. The findings were conclusive. Pet abuse is one of four factors that predicts who will engage in interpersonal partner violence.

Because of the co-occurrence of animal abuse and family violence, the inclusion of pets in protection orders is capturing the attention of state legislators through the United States. In the last three years, three states – Maine, Vermont and New York – have passed legislation to include pets in protection orders. In addition to Maryland, where the MSBA’s Section on Animal Law proposed legislation (SB 965 and HB1376), 12 states are considering similar legislation: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont, Utah and Washington.

Violence in a family is rarely, if ever, targeted at one member. Not only do child abuse and domestic violence appear in the same families with great frequency, but animal abuse also occurs in families in which there is child abuse and domestic violence. They are all a manifestation, or a form, of family violence with the same intent: to exert power and control over others and to intimidate and harass victims.
After learning of the passage of legislation in Maine that provided for the protection of animals in domestic protection orders and hearing about the case of the Maine woman that sparked the passage of the legislation, in April 2006, the MSBA Section on Animal Law authorized a subcommittee to examine the need for similar legislation in Maryland. Maricruz Bonfante, Chair of the Pet Domestic Violence Protection Subcommittee, said, “I knew from my prior experience with domestic violence, having worked at a Domestic Violence clinic, that this woman’s story was the same story as those told in Maryland clinics and shelters. As a group, the Animal Law Section realized that we had the responsibility to address this issue.”

A sampling of some of recent Maryland cases includes: 1. A father’s torturing of family pets to coerce the children and ex-wife to comply to his wishes. The ex-wife was able to obtain a protective order protecting herself and her children, but the children’s pets could not be protected and were beaten. 2. Wife obtained protective order, which could not include the family dog. After the wife left, the husband killed the dog. 3. In a divorce case, the husband obtained a protective order against his wife. Pets could not be included in the order. The wife locked the pets in a room without food or water and told the husband of her doing. The husband was unable to get a court order to protect the pets [pets were ultimately rescued without court intervention].

Senator Jamie Raskin (D-20, Montgomery County) expressed the following when asked about his sposnsorhip of SB 965: “It is well-known among both domestic violence workers and the animal welfare community that abusive spouses or partners will sometimes commit violence against family pets to terrorize and demoralize the mom and kids. There was just such a case two weeks ago in Howard County where a woman took her kids and fled to a shelter but had to leave the beloved family dog at home. Her abusive husband locked the dog outside on a bitterly cold night and he [the dog] froze to death. I am hopeful that the General Assembly will act to give judges the power to enlarge protective orders in domestic violence situations to include pets. It’s common sense, and I’m proud to work with so many animal rights and welfare people across Maryland to make this happen.”

Likewise, Delegate Susan McComas (R-35B, Harford County) said, “My bill prevents the abuser from using the family pet to manipulate the victim. Oftentimes, the family pet is the victim’s best and only friend. The family pet may be the victim’s only unconditional love in a relationship defined by conditions, prescriptions and mandates. HB 1376 protects the family pet from violence and threats of violence.”

Mary Lou Randour, Ph.D., is Professional Outreach Coordinator for the Animal Fighting/Cruelty Campaign of the Humane Society of the United States. Alan S. Nemeth, Esq., is Chair of the MSBA Section on Animal Law and Adjunct Professor of Animal Law at the Washington College of Law/American University.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: April  2007